Drones could help with disasters like Hurricane Matthew

Weather disasters like Hurricane Matthew are pushing wireless carriers to test drones and other unmanned aircraft that can act as wireless hot spots for 4G LTE connections to help emergency responders.

Verizon announced Thursday it had just completed a simulation in Cape May, N.J., using unmanned planes to act as flying hot spots for 4G LTE connections. First responders could use those hot spots to communicate in remote places where wireless antennas were lost or unavailable.

[Here's a video of the AT&T test.]

AT&T has also been working in a similar direction, with drones to inspect its 65,000 cellular transmission towers nationwide.

AT&T has also discussed the possibility of using tethered drones to act as cellular transmission points at crowded sporting events, or to supplement cellular connections damaged by a storm.

Before any of this can happen, one regulatory hurdle still needs to be cleared: To allow drones to fly beyond an operator's line of sight.

Verizon also said it will launch services as early as 2017 to allow third-party developers and businesses to create and manage a wide array of Airbone LTE Operations applications. The Cape May trial assured Verizon that its 4G LTE 700MHz network would be safe for in-flight wireless connectivity.

With the approach of category 4 Hurricane Matthew off the coast of Florida on Thursday, the nation's major wireless carriers said they are prepared to use existing technology like mobile Cells on Wheels (COWs) to provide wireless service where it is lost.

AT&T also said it has replaced many underground transmission cables with waterproof cables. At a majority of its cell sites, the carrier has placed the fiber optic cable serving the antennas above flood level to ensure greater reliability. Nearly all cellular towers connect to a fiber optic cable backhaul to reach to switching operations centers and, then, to the rest of the network.

As with other carriers, AT&T has posted online consumer advice about storm preparations that include the following:

  • Keep your phone battery charged
  • Keep your mobile devices dry
  • Create a family communications plan that includes choosing someone out of the affected area as a central contact
  • Program emergency contacts and email address into your mobile phone

In past emergencies and storms, many cellular customers have found that networks are jammed, which is why consumers are urged to limit social media activity. Often a text message will go through when a voice call won't.

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