Verizon's flying femtocell drones could restore communications quickly after a disaster

While drones have been used in Puerto Rico to help begin the installation of new power and telephone lines in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, Verizon has been testing a 200 lb. (90.7kg) drone that carries a femtocell -- a small cell tower, so to speak -- over an area that has lost coverage due to a storm or other disaster. 

The company recently tested the drone in southern New Jersey. It's a fixed-wing drone with a 17 foot (5.2m) wingspan, made and owned by American Aerospace Technologies. While it's not designed to bring communications to all mobile phone users in an affected area, the idea is to make sure that first responders have communications in minutes.

In Puerto Rico, the fall hurricanes wiped out about 90 percent of all cell sites, making rapid communications around the island almost impossible. Verizon has a service agreement with six drone vendors including American Aerospace that allows them to deploy the flying femtocells when needed without owning the devices. 

 Image via American Aerospace Technologies

Image via American Aerospace Technologies

The American Aerospace drone is gas-powered and can stay aloft for up to 16 hours. It's controlled by a pilot in a mobile operations center, and during the Verizon tests another craft followed it to make sure that the drone could avoid manned aircraft if it flew near or into designated airspace. In the future, BVLOS (beyond visual line of sight) operations may make it possible for operators to control fleets of these flying cell towers from a much more remote location.