Verizon tests ‘flying cell site’ as part of emergency preparedness efforts

Verizon conducted its latest engineering flight tests using a “flying cell site” aboard a drone, and while it didn’t share specific results, it’s another indication that the carrier is progressing with the prospect of using drones to supply an LTE network if severe weather knocks out more traditional cellular network components.

The 17-foot-long drone was piloted by American Aerospace Technologies Inc. (AATI) during the trial run at Woodbine Municipal Airport in Woodbine, New Jersey, on April 5. The test was designed to simulate an environment in which commercial power is knocked out indefinitely after a severe weather event or other disaster that interrupts traditional communications services.

Drones could solve a big problem for operators when natural or other disasters take out all or part of their networks.

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“This new test builds upon our leadership in conducting the first successful demonstration in the U.S. for providing aerial coverage from a long-endurance medium altitude aircraft with AATI in Cape May last October,” said Christopher Desmond, Verizon Network, in a post on Verizon’s website.

Indeed, back in October Verizon presented different use cases of the unmanned aerial systems, or UAS, to enhance network performance and reliability: Emergency response, tower inspections and venue inspections.

The latest test also was conducted under a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) issued by the FAA to Cape May County, where a major emergency preparedness exercise in May will involve county, state and federal emergency responders.

In February, Verizon announced that it had purchased Skyward, a private company based in Portland, Oregon, bringing drone operations management to the Verizon Internet of Things (IoT) portfolio. It’s all part of Verizon’s strategy to drive its Airborne LTE Operations (ALO) initiative, which is designed to simplify certification and connectivity of wireless drones.

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Verizon’s network team began work to develop the technology for in-flight LTE operations in 2014 and throughout 2015. In 2016, it evolved its Airborne LTE Operations further by engaging AATI to test connectivity between aerial platforms and Verizon’s 4G LTE network. 

AT&T launched its national drone program last year, officially making use of drones on its network to inspect cell towers, test distributed antenna systems (DAS) and more. In November, AT&T announced it would be working with NASA to research traffic management solutions for UAS.

A key element of that research is the potential impact of cybersecurity threats. The vast availability of drones—and their many current and potential uses—present increased risks of cyberattacks. AT&T said it advocates cybersecurity protections designed into the system from the outset.