Home5GHow AT&T is using drones, sensors, AI and LPWAN in hurricane season

How AT&T is using drones, sensors, AI and LPWAN in hurricane season

As the summer ends, the weather worsens. For some, the changing seasons bring devastating storms. Their shadows grow ever-longer, and the risk to life grows ever-higher. Last year (2017) saw some of the worst natural disasters on record, with earthquakes, fires, flooding and landslides.

By September, hurricane season has arrived, as reliably as the Fall. Harvey, Irma and Maria wrought havoc across Caribbean islands, the Florida peninsula and the Texas coastline last year.

At writing (September, 2018), Tropical Storm Gordon is about to make landfall as a hurricane on the US Gulf Coast. Gordon is expected to move through the Mississippi valley on Wednesday, and produce eight inches of rain on Thursday.

Alarm bells are ringing. In the battle to anticipate and respond to these ‘naturally occurring’ catastrophes, new technology brings greater knowledge. Telecoms infrastructure, advancing fast, is helping governments and communities to build on this.

Speaking with Enterprise IoT Insights, US carrier AT&T points to four crucial technologies, or technology areas, in its existing armoury for disaster response: drones, fleet management, smart cities, and broad-brushed ‘ecosystem solutions’.

Matt Walsh, director of internet-of-things (IoT) solutions at AT&T, discusses each, in turn.

“Drones provide a bird’s eye view of impacted areas after a natural disaster and video feeds from drones can inspect impacted cell towers, especially those in harder to reach locations,” he explains. “They can also be deployed to provide LTE coverage.”

Drone technology is advancing, fast. Last week, AT&T announced a trial with healthcare firm Merck & Co and packaging company Softbox Systems to utilise LTE-connected drones to deliver medicines in Puerto Rico. “We are testing the delivery of medical supplies with disaster scenarios in mind,” says Walsh.

Its other connectivity solutions for disaster management might be grouped as bespoke applications for emergency services and local administrations, providing either a live information feed, or a springboard for innovation in the public safety space.

Walsh runs through them; its fleet management and smart cities solutions provide agencies and governments with live data from disaster scenes.

“Our ‘fleet management’ solution provides near real-time information and advanced network access that is critical for response fleets such as vehicles used for managing and maintaining utilities, ambulances and first responder vehicles,” he says.

“AT&T’s digital infrastructure provides a near real-time view of a given location by utilising cameras within the device. AT&T’s ‘structure monitoring’ solution provides insights on critical or ageing infrastructure. And AT&T’s smart-city ‘operation centre’ gives cities an inside look at performance across key resources such as 911, water, power and more.

Instead of package deals, AT&T’s ‘ecosystem solutions’ provide a springboard for collaboration and innovation to advance public safety technologies at large.

“We work with several collaborators in the public safety space to continuously bring new IoT solutions to market for disaster response,” says Walsh.

In a blog post, AT&T reveals its own work to prepare for hurricane season, including topping up fuel generators, testing back-up batteries at cell sites, protecting facilities with sandbags, and making emergency equipment available for quick deployment.

Its ‘national disaster recovery’ (NDR) programme is one of the industry’s most advanced, it claims. Its NDR fleet includes “hundreds” of technology recovery and support trailers, which can be quickly moved to disaster zones.

Its trailers contain mobile cell sites and command centres, including cells on wheels (COWs), cells on light trucks (COLTs), and cells attached to drones (flying COWs). They also house emergency communications vehicles and drones, to provide connectivity, survey storm damage, and make deliveries.

In areas like Hawaii, where hurricanes hit hard, hazardous-materials (Hazmat) equipment and supplies are provided too, alongside tents, bathrooms, kitchens, laundry facilities, and meals.

Walsh points to FirstNet, the nationwide public safety communications platform being built by AT&T in public-private partnership with the First Responder Network Authority as a backbone for emergency services. “It is designed to enhance communications across first responders during day-to-day operations and emergencies,” he explains.

FirstNet is available to public safety entities nationwide, helping them connect to critical information, when and where they need it.

But disaster response is changing as technologies advance. AT&T says new low-power wide-area (LPWA) technologies, incoming low-latency, high-throughput 5G networks, and data analytics techniques like artificial intelligence (AI) will help.

AT&T’s burgeoning LTE-M network, expanding fast, and its forthcoming narrowband-IoT (NB-IoT) network, rolling out in the US and Mexico in 2019, will assist smart city functions, especially in the event water and electricity outages, says Walsh.

“These solutions are giving utility providers a secure and established network, delivered over licensed spectrum, to have a low cost, low power consumption solution. Customers are using these solutions to monitor water flow and electricity outages, both of which could be critical in a disaster response.”

Data from IoT sensors deployed on traffic lights, to weather monitoring and population information, is helping cities plan their disaster responses. “We’ve started to experience a shift from reactive to proactive planning,” says Walsh.

“In the future, we’ll see these technologies and capabilities reach maturity and scale. This will allow city leaders and public safety agencies to make more informed decisions when it comes to staging equipment ahead of a disaster and responding after one has occurred.”

And 5G? Well, of course, says Walsh. 5G will enable higher bandwidth disaster-response use cases, such as ultra HD video and data-intensive sensor solutions.

“The lower latency 5G promises will eventually support applications that require near real-time data transfer, such as ground based robotics, unmanned aerial vehicles, and eventually autonomous vehicles at scale. Lower latency will also enable edge processing capabilities for quick assessment of emergency situations using visual analytics,” he says.

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