Following a Communications Breakdown, Drones to the Rescue

One use for pilotless drones could be to provide lifesaving data and communications links after a natural disaster. A circling drone could serve as a sort of temporary AWACS platform, beaming WiFi and cell phone coverage down on an area stricken by downed powerlines and damaged cell towers.

After the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, for example, an estimated 20 percent of the cell towers serving 10 states were disabled. Thousands were left without phone service at a critical time. In some cases, 911 emergency service was also put out of action when it could least afford the interruption.

Though cellular telephone providers do have portable cell towers on wheels, sometimes it isn’t possible to get them to the stricken area. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) reports it recently operated single-engine unmanned aircraft carrying broadband antennas to reconnect emergency communications following wildfires in Texas, an earthquake in Virginia and ice storms in Kentucky. One challenge would be to filter the usage so it wouldn’t be flooded with public calls and only first responders could access the service. But years of experience by the military using drones for secured communications in combat situations could provide the background to solve the problem.

Mark Phelps is a senior editor at AVweb. He is an instrument rated private pilot and former owner of a Grumman American AA1B and a V-tail Bonanza.

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