Verizon explains flying-cell-site drone-project

By Luke Geiver | July 05, 2017

First responders, Verizon and American Aerospace Technologies Inc. have showcased a new strategy to utilize a drone to create a cell tower in the sky. In Cape May County, New Jersey, the entities worked to test the feasibility and operations using an AATI fixed-wing aircraft flying beyond-visual-line-of-sight while broadcasting a Verizon Airborne LTE signal.

UAS Magazine spoke with Verizon and AATI about the test flights and the potential outcomes.

Answers from:

Christopher Desmond, Principal Engineer, Verizon Network Operations

David Yoel, CEO, American Aerospace Technologies Inc.

To start, can you explain what the main takeaway was from the exercise in Cape May?

Christopher Desmond:

We proved in our first live emergency exercise with first responders that they were able to successfully connect to our “flying cell site” and use 4G LTE service to communicate back to their command centers. Rather than developing this technology in a behind-closed-doors / laboratory environment, we are developing this cutting-edge technology in a transparent fashion with the participation and feedback of first responders so it will be useful to them in an emergency situation.

David Yoel, American Aerospace:

Long endurance UAS can be used to deliver emergency communications services at long ranges in post-disaster, communications-denied environments. First responders tested these capabilities in the field in a disaster.  Emergency wireless service in a communications denied environment and aerial survey are a big leap in support of public safety.  We heard what first responders wanted, and we think we have delivered. 

What are the typical methods used to provide cell communication (or any type of communication) after a disaster event such as a hurricane?

Christopher Desmond

We have a long history of providing critical communications services whenever a disaster strikes. When temporary assets are needed, we first evaluate our network and all the tools at our disposal and select the best solution to restore service.  

Verizon has what we call a “barnyard” network assets that includes, for example, a cell on wheels (COW), a generator on a trailer (GOAT), a cell on light truck (COLT) , among other assets.

If Airborne LTE is determined to be the right tool or application the “flying cell site” would be utilized based on the request from first responding agencies and gaining the necessary flight approvals. 

The press release mentioned numerous phones were connected to the flying cell site during the exercise. How does this type of network differ from a more traditional cell tower set-up?

Christopher Desmond

This equipment deployment is very similar to our many other deployable network restoration equipment.  We are sending 4G LTE equipment into the field to restore Network service.  The difference in this case is that we are putting 4GLTE base station equipment into the “belly” or payload area of American Aerospace Technologies, Inc. unmanned aircraft system (UAS) or drone.  

What is unique is that the “flying cell site” is designed to fly to where first responders request service in the aftermath of a disaster.  This mobility will allow a pocket of coverage to be provided to more than one location and move where the first responders need service to communicate back during the aftermath of a disaster when traditional communications services might be disrupted.

David Yoel:

First responders also tested and evaluated an American Aerospace mapping and imagery system named InstiMaps™, that delivers information, data and alerts in near real-time to field and emergency center personnel using Verizon’s 4GLTE backhaul as its preferred communications channel.  

What is the range of the drone-based network? 

David Yoel:

UAS range will vary depending on the requested location and the airspace restrictions. The American Aerospace RS-20 used in this exercise can fly up to 40 miles downrange depending. It has 10-16 hour endurance, depending upon conditions and customer requirements.  Two vehicles would enable 24x7 coverage over a large scale.

Christopher Desmond:

In our flights at Cape May County, the aircraft was at 2,000 feet to provide wireless service that we estimate was a quarter-mile in diameter. The coverage area can vary based on terrain, buildings and other factors.  We will continue to optimize the coverage area that this cutting-edge technology can provide. 

The press release also mentions a new technology that allows drones to beam back live image and video. What is that technology and can you summarize how it works?

Christopher Desmond

There were two types of emergency exercises utilizing Verizon’s Airborne LTE service.  The first was the "flying cell site", where we provided coverage from the air to first responders' handsets on the ground to communicate back to their command centers in a simulated coverage-denied (no wireless service) environment.

The second exercise was designed to provide intelligence to first responders about conditions on the ground by mapping roads, bridges and other critical infrastructure with the objective of providing a safe route for the public to an emergency shelter.

Verizon’s Airborne LTE in this second scenario was using a commercially available modem from Verizon to serve as the backhaul for AATI’s imaging and mapping technology.