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Drone update: AT&T adds larger drones with more radios

AT&T is adding more radios to its cell sites on wings, or COWs as the company likes to call them. The latest COW tests took place in Houston, where AT&T’s network disaster recovery team worked with first responders to practice recovering from the loss of an entire central office facility.

AT&T has experienced the complete loss of a central office only once, on September 11, 2001. But the carrier’s network disaster recovery program got started a decade before that, and over the years the group has completed 76 field exercises with trailers that bring central office equipment into the field.

Now drones are part of the operation as well. AT&T has tested a 7-foot long helicopter drone that can carry up to three radios, and the company says this configuration can be used by disaster recovery teams as well as for other use cases.

“We have several different platforms, several different drones with different radio and antenna configurations, to support various applications and various use cases,” said Art Pregler, director of national mobility systems at AT&T. Pregler added that the AT&T drones are flying up to 400 feet in the air, the highest altitude currently allowed by the Federal Aviation Administration. “The higher you go, with the antennas on the drone, the wider the coverage area that we can support,” Pregler said. He said the larger drones can support up to 8,000 users.

Like AT&T’s smaller drones, the helicopter drone uses fiber to connect to the ground for power and data transmission. The drone can also connect to cell towers, satellites, microwave backhaul, and/or Ethernet, Pregler said. He added that in the future, AT&T drones might work with the carrier’s AirGig technology.

Kelly Morrison, senior technical manager at AT&T, said the drones are complemented by other cell sites on light trucks, which AT&T will deploy if the network or one of its service areas is hit by severe weather or another disaster.

“We have satellite COLTS, or satellite trucks, but instead of attaching to the network with a fiber link we use the satellite backhaul,” Morrison said. He added that the carrier has similar vehicles that provide Wi-Fi connectivity. “We primarily use that for our own command team but if another responder group needs it and we don’t need it, often times those are made available,” Morrison said.

AT&T’s network disaster recovery team is staffed by company employees who volunteer for the job. Team members have spent more than 145,000 working hours on field exercises and deployments over the last two decades, and AT&T has invested more than $600 million in the program.

Image source: AT&T

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