First unmanned aircraft of its kind helps restore Puerto Rico cell service

Cell On Wings (COW) by ATT. (ATT)

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) quickly approved the first unmanned aircraft operation of its kind to help restore cellular service in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria.

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The Flying COW (Cell on Wings) drone, developed by AT&T, functions like a cell tower in the sky, restoring voice, data and internet service. It flies up to 200 feet above the ground, covering an area of 40 square miles, and is particularly useful in remote areas.

The Pulse Vapor 55 drone, which resembles a miniature helicopter, is fitted with LTE radios and antennas and is tethered to ground-based electronics and power systems. Because the aircraft exceeded the 55-lb. weight limit required to operate under the FAA’s small drone rule, the FAA had to issue a special exemption and an emergency certificate of authorization for AT&T to conduct its mission.

The company is using the drone as a temporary cell service solution while it rebuilds the permanent infrastructure on the island.

Today, Ricardo Ramos Rodriguez, executive director of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) resigned after concerns over the slow repairs more than eight weeks after Hurricane Maria destroyed much of the electrical grid. Rodriguez came under fire over a $300 million contract with Whitefish Energy instead of using larger and more experienced networks of utilities that have records of rushing to aid storm-ravaged areas. The Whitefish Energy contract, whose rates were substantially higher than those paid to others was eventually cancelled.

Prior to being hit by hurricanes Irma and Maria, PREPA revealed they needed more than $4 billion to overhaul its outdated power plants and reduce its heavy reliance on imported oil. The hurricanes have exposed transmission problems, also. PREPA has 2,478 miles of transmission lines from its power plants and 31,485 miles of distribution lines, which carry electricity shorter distances from the grid to customers.

Ordinarily, the FAA would require operators to be vetted by the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA), pass an aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved knowledge testing center and the drone had to be less than 55 lbs. Only the 55 lbs. limit is being waived. Other rules include the pilot must be at least 16 years old, the craft must be registered, must fly under 400 feet, must fly during the day, must fly below 100 mph, must yield to the right of way to manned aircraft, most not fly over people, and must not fly from a moving vehicle.

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