AT&T Doubles Up 5G Flying COW, Robot Dogs



A flying COW (“cellular on wings”) provides a 5G network in areas with limited infrastructure and after natural disasters. The technological convergence of drones and 5G is an interesting test case for fast, flexible network deployments that provide a useful intermediate solution in critical areas.

“We had intermittent, weak LTE signal at the flight site before we launched the 5G Flying COW,” said Ethan Hunt, chief program manager of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), AT&T, of a recent test. “We flew the drone to about 100 feet, turned on the signal, and it started broadcast strong 5G coverage to approximately 10 square miles.”

The rollout of 5G is notoriously tricky, especially in areas that can benefit the most from coverage, such as rural areas. The need for infrastructure is enormous. Millimeter wave technology can provide incredible computing speeds over the network, but range is limited to devices near towers. The Flying COWs may not be a permanent solution, but the rapid deployment network is useful in a variety of usage situations.

In February, AT&T unveiled the technology at the Super Bowl at SoFi Stadium† Well-attended sporting events put a lot of strain on networks and often make communication impossible, a disaster for first responders. For the Super Bowl, AT&T partnered with the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet Authority) – an independent agency within the federal government – and deployed three Flying COWs.

AT&T currently relies on research and development projects to both present and provide new use cases for its 5G technology. For example, the company has built a nest of “RoboDogs” that can be used for a number of situations, from search and rescue to bomb disabling. Our teams are constantly working to improve connectivity for these devices, including equipping them with 5G technology† Likewise, as the FAA gears up to ease restrictions on commercial drone operations, the drone team is testing BVLOS — which allows the pilot to drone from a completely different location. AT&T has 30 highly staffed drone pilots and hundreds of contracted drone pilots available at a moment’s notice.

“Our focus within the drone world is connectivity. All of our drone solutions have that focus,” said Art Pregler, Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Program Director, AT&T. “5G brings a lot of new possibilities. We can connect a much larger number of devices to 5G. If we set that up, we can share with a larger population.”

The drones can withstand light rain and wind speeds of up to 25 miles per hour while hovering around coverage areas. Equipped with Band 14, AT&T can use the COWs to equip FirstNet subscribers in the US with connectivity during high-use events.

“We are currently working on many exciting technical challenges to expand the capabilities of our Flying COWs®,” said Art. “We are working to fly autonomously without tethers for months without landing, using solar energy to provide secure, reliable and high-speed 5G connectivity to large numbers of users in large geographies. This solution could one day help boost broadband connectivity.” to rural and other underserved communities in the US and elsewhere.”

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