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AT&T Uses “Flying Cow” Drone to Restore Service to Areas Impacted by Hurricane Michael

BY Isabella Lee
24 October 2018

Hurricane Michael, the third-most intense Atlantic hurricane to make landfall to date in the United States, struck the Southeast U.S. on October 10, 2018. According to the Edison Electrical Institue, the storm left 2.6 million people without electricity. The hardest-hit region, still recovering from the storm, was the Florida Panhandle where entire sections of the energy grid have to be rebuilt.

Hurricane Michael

Image Credit: AT&T

Multiple groups are involved in the restoration process. The Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council (ESCC), Department of Energy (DOE), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) are a few of the leaders working diligently to coordinate recovery efforts with federal, state, and local officials.

Power restoration is a team effort, and strong industry-government coordination and cross-sector collaboration are essential.

—Kevin Wailes, ESCC Co-chair, CEO of Lincoln Electric System

AT&T Uses Drones to Restore Communications to Hurricane Michael Victims

Victims of Hurricane Michael had to bear without the comforts many of us take for granted. Without electricity, simple things become difficult or impossible—cooking a hot meal over the stove, turning on the AC, or calling your family to let them know you’re okay.

Being able to communicate isn’t important to just civilians, but to first responders as well. Communications for police and fire departments can be compromised during and after a hurricane. A power outage can shut down their phones and internet. Add this to downed traffic lights, blocked or closed roadways, and it becomes increasingly difficult for first responders to do their job at a time when they are desperately needed.

AT&T prepared for Hurricane Michael with dozens of pieces of equipment across the Southeast ready to respond quickly and efficiently when minutes mattered most. One of those pieces of equipment was AT&T’s Flying Cow drone.

AT&T Storm Response Equipment

Image Credit: AT&T

The Flying COW was deployed in Mexico Beach, FL where it hovered 200 feet above the ground. As it hovers above the area, the drone is able to provide LTE service to up to 6,500 customers at one time. With this technology, AT&T was able to provide service to customers and first responders in the surrounding area as they worked to recover from Hurricane Michael. This enabled first responders like police, emergency medical responders, and fire departments to resume communications and work quickly. It also enabled AT&T customers to receive storm recovery updates, contact family, and connect with other members of the community during this challenging time.

Connection is crucial and it’s central to our mission. That’s why we will continue to work around the clock to support our customers and first responders.


AT&T also opened up their retail centers to those affected by Hurricane Michael so they could recharge their devices if their homes were without electricity.

How the Flying Cow Works

The Flying Cow carries a small cell and antennas. It’s connected to the ground by a thin tether. The tether between the drone and the ground provides a highly secure data connection via fiber and supplies power to the Flying COW, which allows for unlimited flight time. The Flying COW then uses satellite to transport texts, calls, and data.

AT&T Flying COW

Image Credit: AT&T

Once airborne, the Flying COW provides LTE coverage from the sky to a designated area on the ground. It can extend coverage farther than other temporary cell sites and is ideal for providing coverage in remote areas. AT&T also possess an all-weather COW designed for operations in extream environmental conditions. It can withstand a tropical storm with heavy rain and wind gusts up to 50 mph. Plus, it can fly in snow and extreme temperatures ranging from below freezing to sweltering heat. With thermal imaging capabilities, it also has the capability to see through smoke, tree cover, and other obstacles.

Power Restored to 99% of AT&T Customers Affected by Hurricane Michael

Nine days after the storm made landfall, AT&T reported that their network in affected areas in Florida and Georgia was operating at more than 99.9% of normal. Their teams continue to address the remaining parts of the network that have been affected by the storm.

Hurricane Michael brought about AT&T’s second deployment of the Flying COW in less than a month. The drone was used in September to assist recovery efforts in North Carolina after Hurricane Florence devastated the east coast. AT&T’s first commercial deployment of the Flying Cow occurred in 2017 when they received permission from the FAA to fly their drones to restore cellular service in Puerto Rico, following the extreme damage brought about by Hurricane Maria.

In addition to cellular service, Hurricane Michael victims have also steadily regained electricity. The ESCC stated in a press release that electricity was restored in less than a week to approximately 95% customers impacted by the fast-moving and devastating storm. In just days, investor-owned electric companies, public power utilities, and electric cooperatives mobilized an army of more than 35,000 workers from 27 states and Canada to restore power safely and as quickly as possible.

FCC Criticizes Cellular Companies for Slow Response After Hurricane Michael

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) criticized cellular providers for moving slowly to restore communication services after Hurricane Michael.

Even though efforts to restore communications services have been going well in most of the areas affected by Hurricane Michael, the slow progress in restoring wireless service in areas close to where the hurricane made landfall is completely unacceptable.

—Ajit Pai, Federal Communications Commission Chairman

However, AT&T was able to restore 99% of their network faster (9 days to restore) than competitors such as Verizon (12 days to restore) and T-Mobile (12 days to restore).

Verizon was particularly criticized for the slow service restoration after they received significant damage to their fiber optic cable system. Governor Rick Scott criticized Verizon for saying that 98% of Florida had service—that statement included customers in Florida that were hundreds of miles away from the impacted areas. Verizon’s statement was misleading and “does not help Florida’s law enforcement in Bay County and families communicate with loved ones in Panama City and does not help those needing medicine call their pharmacy in Lynn Haven,” said Scott.

Verizon has credited all their customers in Florida’s Bay and Gulf counties with three free months of mobile service for each line to compensate.

T-Mobile has offered free service through the end of October (including features and applicable late fees, sim starter kits, and device replacement fees) for postpaid, Magenta Prepaid, and Metro customers in areas with continued network impact.

AT&T has extended credits and waived data overage charges to their customers in areas hardest hit by Hurricane Michael. Unlimited talk, text, and data were provided during October for customers in Bay, Calhoun, Franklin, Gulf, Liberty, Taylor, and Waukulla counties. In addition, late payment charges were waived or adjusted.

We expect communication companies will move away from the traditional mobile cell sites and adopt newer technology such as AT&T’s Flying COW in order to keep their customers connected, especially in the face of future natural disasters. Share your thoughts on AT&T’s Flying Cow and the response from cellular companies to Hurricane Michael in this thread on our community forum.


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