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posted by martyb on Thursday September 09, @03:23PM   Printer-friendly [Skip to comment(s)]
from the don't-look-up! dept.

AT&T COW drones restoring phone service cut by Ida's extreme weather:

In their effort to reconnect southeastern communities cut off by Hurricane Ida, telecom companies are taking to the skies with flying COWs[*]. Far from heifers, however, those cell-on-wings units are ultra-buffed, extreme weather-resistant drones that provide phone service to isolated people with the outside world.

Telecom giant AT&T says it deployed its most recent generation of COWs to areas of the southeast whose electricity and communications connections have been cut off by Ida. Though tethered to a multi-purpose cable attached to ground equipment, the specialized drone can hover at 300 feet in extreme weather conditions, providing LTE phone coverage over an area of 40 miles. AT&T's COWs can withstand wind of up to 50 mph, and operate almost indefinitely.

The aerial communication relay stations were developed by AT&T's Network Disaster Recovery Team, which has already produced several generations of the craft. The first version was rolled out nearly a half decade ago, with upgrades following from there.

The COW vehicles, which process dozens of gigabytes of data and thousands of texts and calls as they fly, were first deployed to in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria 2017. The following year, they operated 200 feet above Mexico Beach, Florida in severe weather to provide LTE coverage to residents, first responders, and surrounding counties deprived of phone service. Continued improvements have led to the current version, which operates at altitudes 500% higher than terrestrial COW masts, broadening the reach of service they provide.

[*] COW: Cellular On Wings.


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  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday September 09, @03:57PM (9 children)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday September 09, @03:57PM (#1176286)

    This is really interesting. I had no idea that drones had become strong enough, and equipment was light enough, to do this. I wonder how they get the electricity to do this.

    This seems like a major breakthrough in terms of getting connectivity to remote areas. I am concerned, though, that it is more vulnerable than traditional infrastructure. I can't exactly say why (a tornado will break both, an EMP would break both, an earthquake or flood would more likely break traditional over the flying drones), but a network of flying drones has to be less stable than purpose-built structures.

    • (Score: 5, Informative) by Freeman on Thursday September 09, @04:05PM (6 children)

      by Freeman (732) on Thursday September 09, @04:05PM (#1176290) Journal

      The answer is, it's tethered and can operate for a very long time, because it's not relying on batteries, etc.

      From the article:

      Though tethered to a multi-purpose cable attached to ground equipment, the specialized drone can hover at 300 feet in extreme weather conditions, providing LTE phone coverage over an area of 40 miles. AT&T’s COWs can withstand wind of up to 50 mph, and operate almost indefinitely.

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      • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday September 09, @04:26PM (5 children)

        by Anonymous Coward on Thursday September 09, @04:26PM (#1176295)

        So it's more like a kite with a long antenna.

        • (Score: 2) by Freeman on Thursday September 09, @04:43PM (2 children)

          by Freeman (732) on Thursday September 09, @04:43PM (#1176298) Journal

          Except it's a lot more reliable than a kite.

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          • (Score: 2) by JoeMerchant on Thursday September 09, @06:58PM (1 child)

            by JoeMerchant (3937) on Thursday September 09, @06:58PM (#1176349)

            I'd like to see the results of a lightning strike...

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            • (Score: 2) by Freeman on Thursday September 09, @08:06PM

              by Freeman (732) on Thursday September 09, @08:06PM (#1176371) Journal

              http://www.benjamin-franklin-history.org/kite-experiment/ [benjamin-franklin-history.org]

              The kite was not struck by lightning but the conductor drew negative charges from a charged cloud to the kite, string, metal key and Leyden jar. It appears that he knew enough about grounding to protect himself from being electroshocked. When he moved his hand near the key he received a shock because the negative charge attracted the positive charge in his body.

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        • (Score: 1, Interesting) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday September 09, @04:59PM (1 child)

          by Anonymous Coward on Thursday September 09, @04:59PM (#1176306)

          When you say "more like", do you generally mean "the opposite of"?
          It's a rotorcraft, not a static airfoil.
          It's electrically powered rather than depending on wind.
          And since last I checked the lowest cellular band in the US is ~600 MHz, the antennas are very definitely not long.

          • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday September 09, @07:18PM

            by Anonymous Coward on Thursday September 09, @07:18PM (#1176353)

            I would guess the power to it is not low voltage. If so the tether wire would need to be a large gauge (too big/heavy.)
            If I were to do this I'd use somewhere in the hundreds of volts. And AC so I can keep the COW isolated from static and ground currents up and down the tether.
            For lower height I'd just use balloons. Cheaper and easier. Put three tether lines and it'll stay put.

    • (Score: 4, Insightful) by owl on Thursday September 09, @05:28PM

      by owl (15206) on Thursday September 09, @05:28PM (#1176321)

      I had no idea that drones had become strong enough, and equipment was light enough, to do this.

      Assuming you have a cell phone, you have in your hand a device that is more powerful than an entire data center floor of computer equipment from 30 years ago. Why would you not think the equipment was "light enough" to do this.

      These are not likely intended as permanent items, so they don't need all the usual structural integrity items that a proper tower needs, and given the "tethered" aspect from the article, I'd bet most of the work is done in the land side base station with what is airborne being little more than the antenna's, pre-amps for the antenna's, and translators to/from whatever protocol is used to communicate with the tether side land station.

      If that is the case (and were I designing it, that would be how I'd split the functions), then all the drone needs to carry is a few grams of circuits that drive the antennas, everything else sits on the ground in the box to which the tether is attached.

    • (Score: 2) by ElizabethGreene on Thursday September 09, @05:31PM

      by ElizabethGreene (6748) on Thursday September 09, @05:31PM (#1176324)

      In personal experiments I determined that the payload capacity of an electric 800 class helicopter (each rotor blade being ~800mm = 0.8 meters long) is over 40 pounds and capable of (unloaded) free flight speeds in excess of 100 mph. That's free flying running off a 14s Li-Po battery pack. Since these are ground powered they can remain up as long as that holds out.

      These videos show them using quads instead of Helis, but the capabilities of the technology are similar. Very cool stuff.

  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday September 09, @04:12PM

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday September 09, @04:12PM (#1176292)

    This isn't new, the feds have been mounting stingray trackers to drones for at least around a decade.

  • (Score: 3, Interesting) by MIRV888 on Thursday September 09, @04:25PM

    by MIRV888 (11376) on Thursday September 09, @04:25PM (#1176294)

    It's amazing tech. It will very much work. The drone can fly indefinitely and you have hardline data to the ground. It just needs anti-hawk / eagle missiles, and they're golden.

  • (Score: 3, Touché) by drussell on Thursday September 09, @05:24PM (4 children)

    by drussell (2678) on Thursday September 09, @05:24PM (#1176317) Journal

    Wait... What?! Now anything that flies is called a drone?!!

    Even just something with some propellers attached, holding something up in the air, which is tethered to the ground?!

    • (Score: 3, Interesting) by owl on Thursday September 09, @05:30PM

      by owl (15206) on Thursday September 09, @05:30PM (#1176322)

      To a news reporter, well steeped in the Gell-Man Amnesia effect [epsilontheory.com], yes, anything with propellers that hovers is now a "drone", simply because the reporter does not have the knowledge to know better.

    • (Score: 2) by ElizabethGreene on Thursday September 09, @05:33PM (1 child)

      by ElizabethGreene (6748) on Thursday September 09, @05:33PM (#1176325)

      Is it not "a remote-controlled pilotless aircraft or small flying device." ?

    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday September 09, @05:53PM

      by Anonymous Coward on Thursday September 09, @05:53PM (#1176333)

      The first drones from WWII couldn't even take off on their own. We've been using this word like this for a while.

  • (Score: 2) by Beryllium Sphere (r) on Thursday September 09, @05:40PM (1 child)

    by Beryllium Sphere (r) (5062) on Thursday September 09, @05:40PM (#1176327)

    "Do have a COW, man!"

    • (Score: 2) by Gaaark on Thursday September 09, @08:15PM

      by Gaaark (41) on Thursday September 09, @08:15PM (#1176373) Journal

      From the movie Twister:

      "COW!"
      ....
      "Another COW!"
      "I think that was the same COW"

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  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday September 09, @06:31PM (1 child)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday September 09, @06:31PM (#1176346)

    is why can't they be shaped like cows?

    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Friday September 10, @05:42AM

      by Anonymous Coward on Friday September 10, @05:42AM (#1176499)

      But they are shaped like cows. Special cows, but still...

  • (Score: 2) by SomeGuy on Thursday September 09, @07:50PM

    by SomeGuy (5632) on Thursday September 09, @07:50PM (#1176363)

    What an appropriate name. Cow cell phone users can now blab to each other using COWs.

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