FAA approves AT&T drone in Puerto Rico for cellular service

(Reuters) – The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration on Friday said it had approved a request by AT&T Inc to use a new drone known as the Flying Cow or Cell on Wings to help restore cellular service in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria.

The Pulse Vapor 55 drone functions like a cell tower in the sky, providing voice, data and internet service, the FAA said. It flies up to 200 feet above the ground, covering an area of 40 square miles.

Puerto Rico’s wireless and broadband communications networks, along with its power grid, were devastated after Hurricane Maria made landfall in September. The U.S. territory has struggled to regain communications services. As of Thursday, 39 percent of cell sites remained out of service, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission said.

The drone resembles a miniature helicopter and is fitted with LTE radios and antennas and is tethered to ground-based electronics and power systems, the FAA said.

The FAA exemption was needed because the drone exceeds the 55-pound weight limit required to operate under the government’s small drone rule. AT&T will use the drone as a temporary cell service solution while it rebuilds permanent infrastructure on the island.

In another innovative effort to restore communications in Puerto Rico, experimental communications balloons provided by Alphabet Inc, in collaboration with AT&T and T-Mobile US Inc, began operating in October.

The “Project Loon” balloon project is delivering limited internet connectivity to LTE enabled phones in the hardest-hit areas of Puerto Rico and Alphabet said on Nov. 9 the project had delivered basic internet connectivity to more than 100,000 people on the island.

The FCC approved Alphabet’s application to provide emergency cellular service to Puerto Rico using up to 30 balloons.

The company said it did not expect to use that many, however, since each balloon can provide internet service to an area of roughly 5,000 square kilometers, or 1,930 square miles. Puerto Rico’s area is 3,515 square miles.

The Loon project is part of an innovation lab within Alphabet that the company calls X, previously known as Google X.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Tom Brown)

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