US carrier AT&T has deployed a Flying COW over Puerto Rico as part of ongoing recovery efforts with the goal of providing cell service to get citizens connected again. The Federal Aviation Administration only recently approved the drones for this use case. The drones in question are single-blade helicopters and measure 7.5 feet in diameter, making it easy for them to maneuver to their maximum hover height of 400 feet. AT&T said that the drones can stay in the air for an "extended" period but did not specify exactly how long that is. The drone seems to be tethered to a ground-based power source, so it's conceivable that it could stay up for quite some time if the weather allows it to do so. While at 200 feet in the air, the Flying COW drone can provide cell service for in a radius of 40 square miles.
AT&T's announcement of the effort seems to imply that the company has only one unit in the U.S. territory. This unit is currently in the vicinity of San Juan, and the company plans to move it around over time to help bridge gaps in coverage. The Flying COW is small but carries a full-stack LTE networking system that links back into the main AT&T network to provide coverage. The deployment of the Flying COW marks the first time in history that a flying drone has provided LTE coverage to residents affected by a disaster. While this development does mean that first responders and citizens alike who have languished with limited or no options to get online for the past few months can finally do so, the drone's limitations concerning uptime and service area, along with the fact that there is apparently only one such device operating right now, make the Flying COW a decidedly temporary solution.
According to AT&T, its crews have been hard at work since Irma and Maria struck Puerto Rico, trying to get service restored. Thus far, AT&T says that carriers, utilities, and other parties in the area have managed to get about 70 percent of Puerto Ricans back online, along with about 95 percent of the population of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Thus far, there is no ETA from any given party concerning when recovery efforts on the cellular front should be completed.