More than two months after Hurricane Maria, much of Puerto Rico still does not have cell service.
Drones could fix that. The Federal Aviation Administration today announced that it had approved the use of AT&T’s Flying COW drones to help restore cellular service. The Flying COW drones — which stands for cell on wings — functions like a cell tower in the sky, to provide voice, data and internet service. The drones can fly up to feet above the ground and cover 40 square miles.
AT&T says it is using the drones as a temporary cell service solution while it rebuilds the permanent infrastructure on the island. The company had previously touted the drones as a lifesaver for getting those Snapchats and tweets in while service is overloaded at crowded music festivals and sporting events.
But the drones are proving to serve a real humanitarian need.
As of Thursday, 39 percent of cell sites in Puerto Rico remained out of service, according to the US Federal Communications Commission.
The FAA’s approval was for the massive Pulse Vapor 55 drone, which looks like a small, pilotless helicopter, developed by a company called Pulse Aerospace.
The special permission from the FAA was needed because it weighs 55 pounds without a payload, meaning it exceeds the weight limit required to operate under the FAA’s small drone rule.
AT&T is not the only company to put flying objects in the air to help restore cell service in Puerto Rico. In October, the FCC approved Google’s parent company Alphabet the ability to use balloons to provide emergency cellular service to the island.
The balloons, deployed under Google’s Project Loon, are solar-powered, high-altitude balloons intended to provide internet service in remote regions.