Verizon tests cellphone tower in the sky to aid first responders

By Patrick C. Miller | April 13, 2017

A drone cellphone tower in the sky could help future first responders at disaster scenes communicate effectively when local cellular service is knocked out.

Wireless provider Verizon last week conducted engineering flight tests from the Woodbine Municipal Airport in Cape May County, New Jersey. The tests are helping to determine how large an area of wireless coverage can be created using a long-endurance drone equipped as a flying cell site.

The RS-20 unmanned aircraft system (UAS) used for the test has a 17-foot wing span and is owned and operated by American Aerospace Technologies Inc. (AATI) headquartered in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania.

David Yoel, AATI CEO, said the goal of the flight test was to simulate an environment in which a disaster such as a hurricane or flood had destroyed an area’s cell network while demonstrating the drone’s ability to provide first responders with communications to improve their safety and effectiveness.

Christopher Desmond with the Verizon Network said, “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.”

The test was conducted under a Certificate of Authorization (COA) issued by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to Cape May County in preparation for a major emergency preparedness exercise next month involving county, state and federal emergency responders.

Yoel said the COA covers 800 square miles of airspace up to 7,000 feet. He added that the county’s public safety mission extends beyond its borders and that the COA could be adjusted for natural disasters and other emergency situations.

Marty Pagliughi, Cape May County Office of Emergency Management coordinator, noted that the two biggest uses for UAS for emergency management would be communications and damage assessment.

“They can provide live situation reports, live stream situation reports and damage assessments, and show access points for emergency service vehicles,” he said.

Last fall, Verizon put the drone technology into action from the Cape May airport with three different UAS use cases demonstrating 4G LTE network performance and reliability from the drone.