When COWs fly: AT&T transmits 5G from aerial drone in claimed industry first

AT&T announced that it transmitted a 5G network from an aerial drone in a remote, rural location, claiming the achievement as an industry-first that could broaden phone and internet coverage for hard-to-reach areas and aid emergency workers.

The American telecom titan says it tested the ‘Flying COW’ (Cell on Wings) drone in a rural area in Missouri back in April, where the dearth of obstacles like trees, buildings, and people provided an excellent test opportunity. From there, the drone reached an elevation of 300 feet (approximately 91 meters) and emitted 5G signals to around ten square miles (approximately 26 square kilometers). AT&T says customers with a 5G-capable phone would have had access to rapid wireless connections upon the activation of Flying COW.

“Drones may use 5G for command and control or to stream video, but the AT&T 5G Flying COW is the only drone that provides a 5G network,” says Ethan Hunt, principal program manager of AT&T’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS).

Besides serving as a flying cell tower, Art Pregler, UAS program director, says the drone will allow for new connectivity capabilities and connect more devices with 5G. “It’s enabling a lot more solutions, including human-to-machine interface that are now capable that wasn’t previously possible,” Pregler remarks.

AT&T says the Flying COW can help first responders in search and rescue missions and deliver broadband connectivity to rural and other underserved communities across the U.S. or other countries. Spegler adds that the UAS team is currently making efforts to ensure that Flying COW can autonomously fly without tethers for months without landing, and power them with solar energy.

Another drone project to shower an area in 5G connectivity from up high includes UK startup Stratospheric Platforms, which designed a hydrogen-powered craft that can fly at altitude and provide 5G or LTE coverage over a radius of 140km.

The American telecom confirmed it is also undertaking other drone projects, like the Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) that will allow a drone pilot to remotely control Flying COW from thousands of miles away, and 5G-connected drones named ‘RoboDogs’ that could perform search and rescue missions or defuse bombs. AT&T also announced drone pilot training programs.

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