Disaster recovery work demands facing challenging situations and environments, including at times extreme weather conditions. With the AT&T all-weather flying COW (cell on wings), first responders and field technicians have a tool to help speed recovery work in the toughest of environments.
This new technology has the potential to become one of the highlights of our drone fleet and took a big step forward with a successful first public flight in Bedminster, New Jersey, in May during a network disaster recovery capabilities demonstration. The all-weather flying COW also took flight in May in Redmond, Washington, when engineering students at the University of Washington used it to test Long Term Evolution (LTE) high-speed wireless data antennas they designed to connect on our drones. The antenna development and test flight was the capstone project for students, and also the first time the new all-weather flying COW took on live LTE test traffic.
Compared with our traditional flying COW, this weather-hardened version with beefed up hardware, rugged features and enhanced capabilities is equipped for a more robust role in extreme environments. Equipped with small cells and antennas and easily transported, deployed and moved quickly to accommodate rapidly changing conditions in an emergency, the extreme-weather drone can also withstand a tropical storm with heavy rain and wind gusts up to 50 mph. It also can fly in snow and extreme temperatures ranging from below freezing to sweltering heat. It has the capability to see through smoke, tree cover and other obstacles.
While invaluable to our network recovery work, this new technology can also play a vital role in equipping first responders across the country.
Built by AT&T in public-private partnership with the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) it gives first responders’ communications capabilities a major boost, providing a reliable, highly secure and always-on connection. With that responsibility, we’re committed to empowering first responders with the next generation of communications tools. And our all-weather drone is one of the ways we’re delivering.
Think about first responders operating in remote locations, battling a rapidly moving wildfire that has charred the infrastructure they need to communicate. Or search and rescue crews whose mission takes them off the beaten path where a network doesn’t exist. The all-weather flying COW has the capability to hover above harsh conditions and remote terrain to keep them connected when other drone and deployable options aren’t viable.
Plus, with its thermal imaging capabilities, the all-weather drone can see through certain types of roofs to guide fire fighters around burning trusses, helping them to avoid stepping in areas that may be ready to collapse. This capability can also help search and rescue teams locate people trapped between collapsed buildings following an earthquake or lost hikers hidden from view under dense tree cover. Between its durability and imaging capabilities, the uses of our all-weather drone are endless for fire, police and search and rescue. And we’re thrilled to provide this life-saving technology for them.
During the hurricane season, we monitor the high winds, high waters and other catastrophic events. This year, we’ll be especially well prepared with this innovative tool in our arsenal. We’ll have our new all-weather flying COW ready to deploy when and where it’s needed. Not just to restore our critical connections, but also to help first responders on their mission to save lives and restore communities.
Art Pregler is AT&T’s unmanned aircraft systems program director. For more information,email [email protected]
Due in large part to new technologies, the nature of public safety and the ways we fight crime and keep citizens safe are changing at a rapid pace. According to a February 2017 Accenture report, “Public Safety in a Digitally Disrupted Age,” “This is a new age — a digital age — in which new threats emerge and old threats are reinvented.”
Although technology creates a new layer of complications, it also affords opportunities, the report says, giving us the potential to transform the way police and other public safety agencies meet their more traditional responsibilities with technologies such as video analytics, drones and wearables.
But to properly use these tools, we need real-time data: “These new technologies are … only as good as the data [that] powers them,” the report reads. “That puts the onus on public safety agencies to ensure their data is of the highest quality and is as accessible as possible, without compromising public trust.”
To meet the new challenges of the digital age, public safety authorities can fight fire with fire by making use of available technologies to better protect citizens and obtain high-quality data.
A 4.9-GHz License: The Basics
The FCC has allocated the radio-frequency band from 4940 MHz to 4990 MHz (the FCC calls it 4.9 GHz Public Safety Spectrum) for voice, data and video operations by public safety entities. It is only for public safety use, making it much harder for attackers to jam data than on standard unlicensed wireless bands. Because public safety users must be licensed to use the 4.9-GHz band, and must coordinate their use with any other public safety users in the area, use of the spectrum is highly controlled. Licensees must be state or local organizations or nontraditional public safety entities that have entered into sharing agreements with state or local public safety organizations. All communications in the band must be limited to protection of life, health, or property.
Unlike unlicensed bands that are subject to higher degrees of interference and subsequent security risks, the 4.9-GHz spectrum offers public safety entities an optimal communications environment to transmit and receive real-time, mission-critical data.
To run a 4.9-GHz network, a public safety entity must first obtain a license from the FCC. For mobile or temporary fixed operations, a public safety entity must obtain a geographic license, which allows it to operate mobile devices or temporary (less than a year) fixed stations in its jurisdiction. For permanent fixed stations, once a geographic license is obtained, the next step is to license the permanent (more than a year) fixed stations. The FCC’s Universal Licensing System at https://wireless2.fcc.gov/UlsEntry/licManager/login.jsp can be used to apply for both licenses.
Before applying for licensing, an entity will need to obtain an FCC Registration Number (FRN) here: https://apps.fcc.gov/coresweb/publichome.do. This is relatively simple and requires some basic identifying info.
Once the FRN is active, the entity can apply for geographic licensing, which, once issued, will typically cover the jurisdiction of the requesting entity. For example, if the applicant is the police department of a city, the geographic license will cover that city. An applicant will need a wide variety of information for this section, including (but not limited to) the location from which operations will be controlled; planned activities; geographic area (center point and radius, using longitude and latitude); and potentially an environmental assessment. If jurisdiction boundaries overlap, 4.9-GHz licensees are expected to coordinate channel use. In a few areas, 4.9-GHz spectrum use is also covered under spectrum use plans established by regional planning committees.
Once the FCC approves the mobile, geographic license, if the public safety entity wants to add a permanent, fixed station to the 4.9-GHz network, the entity must seek a second site-specific fixed license. This license requires some of the same information as the geographic license, in addition to greater detail about the specific location of the station and antennas.
There’s no way to predict how quickly the FCC will issue a 4.9-GHz license. However, it’s advisable to first search for and coordinate with other public safety licensees in the area, and allow at least one month for the FCC to process an application to authorize mobile and temporary fixed use. For permanent fixed use, plan for an additional one-month wait.
4.9 GHz: Pair it with Drones
There are multiple ways a public safety entity might use the 4.9 GHz public safety band in addition to running day-to-day communications on it.
Many places and events that require officials to maintain and protect citizens’ safety may not have the most reliable communications. One potential solution to this challenge involves combining three technologies — an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV, or drone), a reliable wireless mesh network and the 4.9-GHz spectrum. If the FAA and FCC clarify their drone rules, public safety entities may be able to use a tethered drone in the band. In the interim, a municipality or city holding a 4.9-GHz license may apply to the FCC for an experimental license. The tethered drone would carry a wireless radio that joins the local ground-based mesh network, creating pop-up connectivity. The tether connects the drone to a generator on the ground, allowing it to fly for days at a time.
By using the drone as an instant tower to create temporary fixed communications networked with a ground mesh in 4.9-GHz band, law enforcement and other officials can augment their ground awareness with aerial on-the-spot connectivity, no matter where they are, providing real-time mission-critical data from wearables, cameras and other devices.
This is ideal for large municipal events like parades, solar eclipses, sporting or political events, or festivals. At these kinds of outdoor events, standard methods of connectivity may not be reliable because of heavy traffic from attendees, or may not even exist for lack of towers, depending where the event takes place (e.g., the desert or remote fairgrounds). If the network can run on both licensed and unlicensed bands (a preferred scenario for greater redundancy and versatility), then the benefits are two-fold: Event attendees get better reliability on their personal devices, and police and safety officials gain connectivity with less concern about interference or security issues because they can use the 4.9-GHz spectrum.
The additional connectivity is just one benefit. By flying a camera-equipped drone to monitor an event from above, public safety entities gain eyes in the sky to augment the boots on the ground and stationary cameras, creating new levels of security, even at large outdoor venues. Stationary ground cameras have limitations on the perspective and angle they can capture, and police can’t be everywhere at once, so tethered UAVs flying overhead create an extra layer of support.
The Trial Run in Morehead
Rajant, a provider of private wireless networks, worked with the Morehead, Kentucky, police to apply for an experimental license from the FCC to fly a tethered drone integrated into a kinetic mesh network during a large outdoor event in July 2017 in Morehead. The drone flight’s purpose was to test the viability of an aerial broadband communications and surveillance system attached to a tethered drone to enhance situational awareness for police and first responders during similar events.
Morehead has a free public kinetic mesh network installed in its downtown area, with a combination of wireless network nodes and networking software that give instant internet access to anyone within the network’s parameters. In a kinetic mesh network, an infinite amount of nodes can join the network without affecting bandwidth or throughput, so the node on the drone was able to tap into existing network infrastructure for instant connectivity. Additionally, kinetic mesh networks can run on licensed, unlicensed and military bands, so the tethered drone’s on-board network connection was able to use the 4.9-GHz band.
The tethered drone flight and pop-up connectivity test was a success, allowing rapid radio coverage as well as aerial video coverage during the outdoor festival. The Morehead Police flew Rajant’s drone 30 meters over the city and live-streamed the video coverage, showing high-bandwidth throughput is possible via a drone on a mesh network. Additionally, the wireless radio on the drone created a reliable pop-up aerial broadband network for Morehead’s public safety communications.
“We have a relatively small [police] department, and you want to make sure you have every angle covered [during these kinds of events],” said Morehead Mayor Jim Tom Trent. “If there’s an issue, we need to know where it is as quickly as possible, who’s involved, how many people need to respond, [and] who needs to respond, and that all starts with communication.”
New Challenges and Solutions
The Accenture report makes it clear that we can’t rely on the same old strategies anymore to maintain safety because asymmetrical threats require more proactive, more preventive and less conventional solutions.
By creating aerial surveillance and pop-up mobile broadband, a 4.9-GHz system networked with a tethered drone can greatly enhance a public safety entity’s connectivity options and provide access to real-time data from anywhere, even rural areas or outdoor events.
Creative solutions such as this can be a safe and valid answer to rapid deployment of aerial communications, supporting cities’ missions regarding security and protection of life and property. Perhaps it won’t be uncommon one day to see swarms of drones over festivals like Coachella that create a broadband network in the sky, boosting event security while giving public safety entities access to aerial surveillance and consistent connectivity.
Although there are still current challenges to running tethered drones on the 4.9-GHz band, having a reliable mesh network and 4.9-GHz licensing in place will better position cities to reap the benefits of low interference, reliability, high availability and security.
Don Gilbreath is vice president of systems at Rajant. His email address is [email protected].
From the pages of AGL Magazine.
AT&T has deployed its helicopter Flying COW (Cell on Wings) as it works to permanently restore its network in Puerto Rico. It is the first time an LTE cell site on a drone has been successfully deployed to connect residents after a disaster.
The experimental technology is providing data, voice, and text services to customers to customers in an up to 40-square mile-area. It flies 200 feet above the ground and can extend coverage farther than other temporary cell sites. Ideal for providing coverage in remote areas.
“LTE-connected drones hold a lot of potential for FirstNet-subscribers,” the company said. “Exploring the capabilities of this technology in wake of Hurricane Maria’s devastation will help temporarily restore connectivity and assess how first responders can use the drone in the future.
“An unprecedented event such as Hurricane Maria has required we look to innovative solutions to connect customers, first responders, and disaster recovery teams. From our involvement with Vanu, to our unique use of portable cell sites at the base of clusters of cell towers, testing the Flying COW is just one way we’re using technology in new ways,” AT&T added.
Currently deployed in the San Juan area, the carrier plans to relocate its Flying COW in the coming days to support additional areas, including the military hospital at Manati Coliseum.
Teams are working around the clock to restore the network and deploy additional assets in impacted areas in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Today, nearly 70 percent of the population in Puerto Rico and nearly 95 percent of the population in the U.S. Virgin Islands are connected again.
Remember the days when nefarious individuals would drive around looking for unsecured Wi-Fi networks, find a comfy spot to park and collect data or avail themselves of unsecured Wi-Fi access, known as wardriving? Those days are pretty much behind us now and wardriving is mostly just a memory but the concept is still very much alive. It is just much more sophisticated and creative, which brings me to this missive.
Putting a new twist on the old wardriving game, Gene Bransfield used a neighborhood-roaming cat to map vulnerable Wi-Fi networks in the neighborhood.1 In the days of wardriving, this would have been impossible. The equipment in those days was massive, by today’s standards. But thanks to our friend an Intel co-founder, Gordon Moore, it is now small enough to fit into a cat’s collar.
Bransfield did this more for amusement and to show what is possible than anything else, it does bring up some interesting ponderings. One being the idea that snooping devices can now come in just about any shape or size. The components that Bransfield uses; a Wi-Fi module, GPS module, Spark Core chip, and a battery can all fit into something as compact as a cat’s collar. When he let the cat out, by the time it came home, he had garnered a fair number of vulnerable Wi-Fi networks. Some were unsecured, others with original, easily broken encryption and others with just the original default password.
Fast-forward a couple of years. The landscape has not changed much. We have upped the ante on encryption but the end user still has not taken security more seriously. Moreover, even as the ante for encryption was elevated, hackers have developed more sophisticated hacking mechanisms so we are still on the same parallel plane. Both sides have gotten more complex in the ability to encrypt and hack.
Reading this, I realized that, with the proliferation of drones, this could easily be adapted to them. While it can be done with airborne units, their time aloft makes it rather impractical, unless one wants to invest in expensive commercial units, but ground drones are another story. And, with the tools available to hackers now-a-days, the interconnect of everything and anything, and the still lackadaisical attitude of most users about security, I can see this amusing, anecdotal experiment morph into another attack vector for the hacker. It will be interesting to see if something along these lines materializes. Wardroning, anyone?
1. “How to Weaponize you Cat to Hack Neighbors’ Wi-Fi Passwords.” https://thehackernews.com/2014/08/how-to-weaponize-your-cat-to-hack-your_9.html
Ernest Worthman is the Executive Editor/Applied Wireless Technology. His 20-plus years of editorial experience includes being the Editorial Director of Wireless Design and Development and Fiber Optic Technology, the Editor of RF Design, the Technical Editor of Communications Magazine, Cellular Business, Global Communications and a Contributing Technical Editor to Mobile Radio Technology, Satellite Communications, as well as computer-related periodicals such as Windows NT. His technical writing practice client list includes RF Industries, GLOBALFOUNDRIES, Agilent Technologies, Advanced Linear Devices, Ceitec, SA, and others. Before becoming exclusive to publishing, he was a computer consultant and regularly taught courses and seminars in applications software, hardware technology, operating systems, and electronics. Ernest’s client list has included Lucent Technologies, Jones Intercable, Qwest, City and County of Denver, TCI, Sandia National Labs, Goldman Sachs, and other businesses. His credentials include a BS, Electronic Engineering Technology; A.A.S, Electronic Digital Technology. He has held a Colorado Post-Secondary/Adult teaching credential, member of IBM’s Software Developers Assistance Program and Independent Vendor League, a Microsoft Solutions Provider Partner, and a life member of the IEEE. He has been certified as an IBM Certified OS2 consultant and trainer; WordPerfect Corporation Developer/Consultant and Lotus Development Corporation Developer/Consultant. He was also a first-class FCC technician in the early days of radio. Ernest Worthman may be contacted at: [email protected]
Expected to be one of the most expensive storms to strike the United States, Hurricane Harvey was also the proving ground for how drones can make the recovery process for the communications infrastructure more efficient and less expensive.
In advance of Hurricane Harvey, AT&T had devised a plan to deploy crews to a San Antonio staging area. As the storm hit and moved on, the crews were dispatched to the affected areas. Drones were deployed initially in the Corpus Christi/Rockport area where Harvey made initial landfall after the storm moved inland. The carrier had 25 teams with drones in the field to define repair crew engagement.
“The drones allowed us to have a quicker, safer, more efficient response to the hurricane,” said Art Pregler, director, National Mobility Systems at AT&T and member of the NATE UAS Committee. “We brought in crews and flew the drones and were able to quickly assess any damage to our towers. We could better inform our crews of which sites to go to, the priorities, the extent of any repairs that were needed.”
In Houston, just getting to a tower was a challenge due to the flooding, so drones were also used to define access routes to AT&T network elements.
“We just have to be in visual line of sight of the tower, so if the site is under water we can fly the drone over the water to the site. There were quite a few instances where drones had to fly over flooding waters as we examined our wireline elements, Pregler said.
“It proved to be very effective. Our drone crews worked directly with our repair crews. They were synched up on them, providing them with the information they needed when they needed it,” Pregler added.
While the result of the drone deployment during Harvey was quite positive, AT&T will study the cost versus the benefit of using drones as it plans future deployments.
“We are looking at that value of the data collected and comparing it with the cost of collecting that data,” Pregler said. “We will consider the complexities of getting permissions to fly and interacting with first responders.”
Some Towers Were Damaged but None Knocked Over
DataWing Global, a San Antonio, Texas-based aerial data collection company, did reconnaissance for two major tower owner after Harvey. The drone company, which has an internal staff of 11 pilots and a total network of 160 pilots nationwide, set up a command center in Mattis, Texas, on Aug. 31 with its drone crews and a total of nine pilots and spent the next five days investigating a little more than 100 structures.
“One of the values our investigation was finding structures that were not damaged,” said Jimmy Taylor, director, advisory board at DataWing Aerial Analytics. “Reporting that status to the owners allowed them to direct their crews to the sites that were damaged.”
Damage that DataWing did report included stripped coaxial cable, antennas that were hanging from the structure and flooding around the compounds. Taylor noted that no towers were knocked down by the storm.
“Tower companies have done a great job of building strong towers and reinforcing them as loading increased,” Taylor said. “The result is towers that will withstand forceful storms and winds like this.”