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FAA Approves AT&T Drones to Restore Cell Services in Puerto Rico

BY Zacc Dukowitz
20 November 2017

The FAA has officially approved the use of drones to restore cellular service in Puerto Rico, following the extreme damage brought about by Hurricane Maria.

The drones that will be used for these operations are called Flying COWs (Cell on Wings), and were created by AT&T to act like a flying cell tower. These drones will quickly restore voice, data, and internet service to those who have been without these services since Hurricane Maria hit.

AT&T's First Official Deployment of Cell On Wings In Puerto Rico | AT&T

Two months after Hurricane Maria, 37% of Puerto Rico’s cellular sites remained un-operational, making communication incredibly difficult for many of the island’s residents. As of last Thursday, the same day the news was announced, AT&T reported that 80% of Puerto Rico’s cell customers were connected.

Looks like we have yet another application to add to the list of drones being used for good around the world.

Special FAA Authorization

The FAA’s Small UAS Rule only allows for operations of drones that weigh under 55 pounds.

The drone AT&T plans to use for operations in Puerto Rico is the Pulse Vapor 55, which is huge, and exceeds the FAA’s maximum weight allowance (and that’s without a payload attached).

Due to the weight of the Pulse Vapor 55, AT&T’s proposed operations in Puerto Rico required special authorization from the FAA. The FAA issued this authorization on a temporary basis last Thursday, stating that the drone could be used to restore cell service on the island as a stop gap measure while permanent infrastructure is being rebuilt.

About AT&T’s Flying COW Drone

The Pulse Vapor 55 is big, and looks like a mini helicopter.

It spans 7.5 feet in diameter, can fly up to 200 feet in the air, and cover an area of 40 square miles. When in use, it can provide cell coverage for up to 8,000 people simultaneously.


Previously, AT&T had floated the idea of using drones like these as a way to provide regular cell coverage in high saturation scenarios, such as during concerts.

Earlier this year, AT&T shared news of a test flight of the COW in which it was used to transmit and receive high speed data above a field outside Atlanta. At the time, they believed it was the first flight of its kind ever performed.

When COWs Fly | Watch AT&T's Cell on Wings (COW) in Action | AT&T

The video above shows a test flight in rural Georgia, in which the drone is tethered to a base of solar panels and connected to fiber that allows the drone to broadcast data.

These COW drones are incredibly useful for disaster recovery, since they can support areas where connectivity is down after a hurricane, tornado, or other natural disaster. But they can also be helpful for wildfire scenarios, since they can track a fire fighting team’s efforts as a fire moves, providing connectivity at different locations based on the needs of the operation.

We’re taking LTE technology to the sky. We’re able to reach areas that we weren’t able to easily reach in the past.

– Art Pregler, Director of AT&T’s Drone Program

AT&T currently only has one of these drones, but is testing additional models for deployment.

In the next few years, we hope to see more and more of these drones keeping us connected right after disasters, at times when we previously would have expected to lose coverage for weeks or even months.

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