Law enforcement and emergency responders have been using drones to give them an eye in the sky for years. But the unmanned aerial vehicles may soon provide ears as well.
Two of the country’s largest mobile phone companies are exploring using drones as flying mobile hot spots to provide phone and other services when cell towers are down or in areas where service does not exist.
“After Hurricane Sandy, we lost cell service countywide for several days,” said Martin Pagliughi, the director of the Cape May County Office of Emergency Management in New Jersey.
So on a raw day last month, several of Cape May’s emergency responders gathered at a municipal airport in Woodbine to watch Verizon launch a 200-pound drone into the sky. When it reached an altitude of 3,000 feet, a hot spot on board started transmitting a wireless signal. On the ground, members of the Cape May Police Department noted the strength of the service on the Verizon-issued phones they were carrying.
“They were testing texting, they were testing voice, they had full coverage in the radius,” Pagliughi said.
Verizon is trying to determine how a portable 4G LTE hot spot could work in an area “where a disaster had impacted Verizon service and there is no other way to get cellular coverage to that location,” said Christopher Desmond, a principal engineer for the company. The trial in Cape May was the company’s second in New Jersey and it reaffirmed the viability of the concept, Desmond said.
Verizon is not alone in exploring the use of drones to help when disasters strike.
In 2017, AT&T won a $7 billion federal government contract to construct a nationwide disaster readiness network called FirstNet. Parts of the program will include technology to provide cell service from the sky. When Hurricane Harvey struck Houston and Hurricane Maria battered Puerto Rico, AT&T relied on mobile hot spots driven to sites and raised onto masts to provide cellphone service.
The company also can launch a remote four-rotor hovering drone known as a Cell on Wings, which is tethered to ground cables for data exchange and power. (Verizon service was not knocked out by Harvey and the company does not provide cellphone service in Puerto Rico.)
“A vast majority of the time” the combination of a truck and a mast will solve the communications problem, said Chris Sambar, a senior vice president at AT&T. “But there are times where what’s needed is a drone.”
In addition to providing phone and other data services for emergency responders, Verizon is pursuing other possible uses for drones.
“We envision the ability for the aircraft to have a camera onboard to collect the photographic data and beam it to the ground,” Desmond said, providing situational awareness at the scene and also at a command center. That, he said, would enable better collaboration between those inside and outside a disaster zone.
Cape May became a host of the Verizon tests because officials promote the county as a site for commercial drone-development programs. The county has a drone business incubator that houses several startups and it has a special certificate exempting it from Federal Aviation Administration regulations that limit drone flights to daylight hours and altitudes under 400 feet.
The waiver allows test flights up to 7,000 feet. Because the zone covers a peninsula that juts into the Delaware Bay and Atlantic Ocean, much of the 800 square miles of approved airspace is over water or swaths of undeveloped land without cell service, making the area ideal for testing flying cell sites.
The pilotless airplane with its 17-foot wingspan is much larger than a hobbyist’s drone. It does not hover and it does not run on batteries. Instead its gas engine supports flights that can be as long as 16 hours, while producing 400 watts of power — enough to control the airplane and feed the electrical needs of a communications hot spot, camera and other onboard equipment.
“It’s a unique vehicle, a unique way of carrying sensors with a persistence you can’t get from manned aircraft,” said David Yoel, the founder and chief executive of American Aerospace, the company that owns the drone and operates it for Verizon.
Before Verizon started testing its aerial hot spot, Cape May had conducted its own tests using a drone from American Aerospace equipped with radio, cell and satellite transmitters. Pagliughi said he wanted to see how effective the various options might be and that the county would work with any company that could expand the range of airborne service for emergency responders. “I think it is extremely important,” he said.