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AT&T just tested a flying cell tower, and it could change everything

Published Feb 16th, 2017 2:49PM EST
att drone
Image: AT&T

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Regardless of where you live, you probably have a really good idea of what sections of your city, neighborhood, or rolling rural hills offer good cellular reception. Driving through a well-known “dead spot” is like venturing through an invisible barrier into a dangerous land, and unless your carrier upgrades their hardware in the area — which is often a rarity — a bad coverage area isn’t going to suddenly become awesome overnight. AT&T just tested something that could change that, and it has four arms and propellers.

After first announcing its drone program in July of last year, AT&T has been working on building what it calls “flying COWs.” COW stands for “cell on wings,” and although the drone doesn’t actually have any wings, what it does have is the power to reshape AT&T’s network by enhancing coverage in any area it is deployed. The drone is packed with technology that you normally only find in an actual cellular tower, but unlike a stationary antenna it can be sent anywhere it’s needed.

After months of work, the company performed its initial test flight outside Atlanta today. The massive drone started up, took off and hovered for a bit, and then landed. It might not look all that impressive at first, but what the drone is capable of is actually pretty awesome. According to AT&T, a single one of the flying cell towers can provide coverage for 40 square miles, and since it’s tethered to a vehicle-based ground station it is continuously powered and never needs to land to be recharged.

However, before you go dreaming of a world where these fancy drones fill in all the patchy coverage anomalies in your neighborhood you should know that these powerful cell boosters are likely to be deployed in only the most crucial cases of network downtime. AT&T plans on using them to restore communications in areas affected by natural disasters and to provide extra coverage at popular venues like concerts and sporting events, where the sheer number of people can cause headaches.