What if cell service from a drone could save lives?

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As another gust of wind hits the windows on my house I can see them start to bow inward. “I think we need to go downstairs,” I say to my wife. The 99 mph winds are battering the outside of my house and the siding is literally starting to peel away.

One more powerful gust and I honestly believe the windows will implode. It’s Superstorm Sandy and I’m standing in my living room and watching brilliant flashes of light in the distance as I look towards the NYC skyline from my house in New Jersey. The flashes go from bright white to a sustained orange.

“I think those are power lines and that some are catching fire,” I say as I forget about the wind for a moment because of how bright the orange color is against the night sky. I hear the wind again. “One more gust like that and we’re going downstairs.”

When the sun rose the next morning the devastation from Sandy was everywhere.

Tech for heroes

First responders had an overwhelming job to do. But hurricanes are just one disaster scenario. Tornados, floods, fires and earthquakes are just a few of the other examples that they face.

Now imagine putting first responders in those disasters without the ability to communicate – a nightmare scenario for everyone.

…imagine putting first responders in those disasters without the ability to communicate – a nightmare scenario for everyone.”

But what if a drone in the sky after a major disaster could help first responders communicate when all other communications are down? That sounds like a concept worth testing.

So Verizon, American Aerospace Inc. and the Cape May County Office of Emergency Management organized an Emergency Management Exercise to put it to the test, along with other participating agencies like the New Jersey State Police and the U.S. Coast Guard.

First, American Aerospace puts a drone with a 17’ wingspan weighing 175 pounds up in the air with equipment aboard creating a flying cell site. Then, we simulate a ‘coverage-denied area’ which is essentially a place with no cell service. For this test we are using Belleplain State Forest in southern New Jersey.

Chase plane follows drone

The chase plane tracks the UAS as it flies over Belleplane State Forest in New Jersey.

A group of first responders are then taken to the coverage-denied area and given smartphones. They quickly see there is no service in the zone.

Finally, we fly the drone overhead and they watch as the bars of 4G LTE service come right back on the smartphones, allowing the first responders to send and receive calls and information.

“This is the very first time that this cutting-edge technology has been in the hands of public first responders,” according to Chris Desmond, a principal engineer for Verizon.

Not your hobby drone

When you think of a drone you’re probably thinking of the most common quad-copter style often used to shoot video or by hobbyists. That’s not what we’re using.This sweet piece of technology is a long-endurance aircraft and officially called an Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS). It’s built to stay in the sky far longer, fly much higher and go longer distances.

Drone on a crate

The Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) is has a 17' wingspan and weighs 175 pounds.

This is the type of equipment you need in a real post-catastrophe scenario to provide the best support possible for these heroes to communicate.

Thanks to these tests we move one step closer to making the technology a reality and putting it in the hands of those who need it most.

What would it be like to witness a flooded neighborhood, a collapsed building, a chemical contamination, a subway terror attack, and a hostage situation all in one day?

Check out this video illustrating the future of tech for heroes in a separate exercise we recently helped to bring together.

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First responders used smartphones to connect to a “flying cell site” and made calls and sent text messages back to their command centers during an emergency management exercise.