How drones,
phones and
mini cell towers
can benefit
public safety

Author: Rachel Engel

Advances in technology are helping to put more and clearer information into the hands of first responders. For instance, it’s well known that public safety drones can be equipped with high-resolution cameras that can help provide an aerial view of the scene. Or, public safety drones can provide thermal images to incident commanders on the ground, helping to protect their crews, predict fire directions, or help find a missing person.

Adding a mini cell tower to a drone creates roving coverage in an area where a fire or weather system may have damaged a cellular network, preventing decision-makers from receiving critical information, which could have serious repercussions for the work of first responders and public safety officials.

These public safety drones turned mini cell towers provide the ability for responders to receive and send information regardless of how much damage the immediate area has sustained. 

How an airborne mini cell tower works

When working in search and rescue operations or in the aftermath of a devastating natural disaster, first responder crews may find they are flying blind in areas with sparse to no network coverage or in the event cellular towers are damaged.

To address this concern, Verizon began testing a “flying cell site” attached to a drone in 2017. First responders were sent to a remote location in New Jersey's Belleplain State Forest—an area without cell service. A drone operated by American Aerospace Technologies, Inc. was launched from a nearby airport and flown to the wooded area above the stationed first responders, who were then able to use Verizon's Airborne LTE Operations (ALO) service thanks to the drone's proximity and could make phone calls and send text messages. The drone was connected back to Verizon's network in order to provide a 4G LTE signal to emergency personnel through the aircraft.

The impact of a cell booster tower after a natural disaster

After Hurricane Ian caused significant damage in Florida in 2022, Verizon deployed drone technology with a temporary mobile cell tower site to provide 4G and 5G coverage.

Hurricane Ian is a good example of the potential double-sided impact on connectivity after a natural disaster. Not only can existing communications infrastructure be damaged, but the increase in first responders, government officials and community organizations responding to the emergency alongside residents using mobile data due to home internet outages can result in significant network traffic spikes. For example, after Hurricane Ian, data traffic increased by more than 70% pre-storm levels in some areas.

This is why drones with a mini cell tower can be a game changer. When public safety organizations are limited by a lack of network coverage and unable to access more accurate information, the temporary coverage provided by a drone can have a significant impact on operations. This can allow critical information to be transmitted and potentially save lives. One tech company, Spooky Action, uses tethered drones equipped with a mini cell tower to assist medical personnel working in field hospitals, providing broadband and LTE coverage to healthcare workers.

The benefits of public safety drones with a mini cell tower

Drones have already made an indelible mark on public safety search and rescue operations, with aerial surveillance providing a big-picture view of the targeted area and advancements such as thermal imaging providing uniquely valuable information.

By adding a cell booster tower to public safety drone capabilities, first responders won't be limited by network coverage when searching for missing individuals, expanding the use of technology and increasing the probability of a successful mission.

Researchers have also discovered a way to use a missing person's mobile device as a beacon with the help of a public safety drone equipped with a cellular base station. The search and rescue functioning drone can be flown over the search area to gather signals from mobile devices. The public safety drone can help first responders hone in on the missing individuals' device. As the drone traverses the area, the location of the missing person narrows and the information can be relayed to rescue crews on the ground.

Known as the search and rescue drone-based solution (SARDO), the process eliminates the need for three separate cell towers to be used in locating an individual mobile device. 

Partnering for advanced coverage

The integration of mini cell towers with drones on search and rescue operations is monumental; the technology could eliminate the dreaded no-coverage areas that haunt first responders during missions and alleviate headaches for crews in the aftermath of a disaster when network towers have been damaged.

For these advancements to have an impact on operations, though, reliable connectivity must be a priority. When working in remote locations with little network coverage, with first responders counting on information to arrive on time, confidence in an organization's network provider is crucial.

Learn how Verizon Frontline, the advanced network for first responders on the front lines, is prioritizing new technology and looking to the future when it comes to public safety.

The author of this content is a paid contributor for Verizon.