When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico last September, it ravaged the island’s electrical grid and communications systems. For weeks, many of the approximately 5 million Puerto Ricans living in the mainland U.S. were unable to reach their loved ones. While recovery groups worked to restore power and deliver aid, cell providers scrambled to repair their networks. To get its service back up and running, AT&T tried something new: the Flying COW, a tethered drone that beamed mobile-data signals up to 40 miles in all directions.
“As soon as we turned it on, people just started connecting to it instantly,” says Art Pregler, AT&T’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems program director. His team operated the Flying COW, short for “cell on wheels,” from the parking lot of a Walmart on the island, which provided the Internet connection for the airborne cell tower.
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This appears in the June 11, 2018 issue of TIME.
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