AT&T is using amphibious vehicles, drones and more to restore its network during disasters

In a nondescript warehouse outside of Atlanta, nestled among the office parks and chain restaurants that characterize America’s suburbs, AT&T prepares for disaster. This is one of the company’s Network Disaster Recovery (NDR) sites, a place where a volunteer group of AT&T employees can test and train equipment that can quickly bring connectivity back up if a local office is destroyed.

Longtime Engadget readers may recall our visit to a similar Chicago-area location in 2008, just a year after the launch of the iPhone and well before the company began rolling out 4G LTE. Given how much the world has changed since then, with smartphones in virtually every pocket and multi-billion dollar weather and climate disasters on the rise.

Gallery: AT&T NDR website | 11 photos

Originally founded in 1991, AT&T has spent over $650 million building its NDR program in the US (up $100 million since 2008). Since 2017, AT&T has also provided network support for FirstNet (First Responder Network Authority), which provides a wireless public safety network across America. Both T-Mobile and Verizon have their own disaster preparedness initiatives, but AT&T’s wireless division has the advantage of starting more than a decade before either of those competitors entered the United States. Neither company has publicly disclosed how much they invest in disaster recovery, and our requests for more details went unanswered.

It’s one thing for AT&T to claim that it spends a large chunk of its money on disaster recovery (the cynic in me can’t help but wonder how that number is calculated). But given the vast amounts of equipment the company has expended on its NDR program, one thing becomes clear: this is more than just good PR. It’s a moral mission for AT&T’s volunteer employees, many of whom come from military backgrounds. While not as business-critical as providing food, water and shelter, providing connectivity could still save lives by making it easier for first responders to communicate with each other, not to mention giving those in danger the ability to get help pick up.

AT&T NDR site visit
Flying COW (cell-on-wings) drone from AT&T NDR.

Devindra Hardawar/Engadget

During our 2008 visit, we learned that the NDR team used a standard Chevy Suburban loaded with cellular equipment to restore parts of its network. Today they look to the sky and beyond. (That Suburban has also been replaced with a 4×4 Emergency Club Cab pickup.) AT&T has used drones called Flying COWs (cell-on-wings) for several years, but its forthcoming iteration can spit out 5G coverage to about ten square miles from 300 feet, while currently deployed drones deliver Band 14 LTE.

For security reasons, all of the company’s drones are currently tethered to stations on the ground that provide power as long as their generators can remain charged. They also require two people to operate – one to fly the drone and another to look out for obstacles. The drone I saw looked bigger than any consumer model I’ve seen, and it can carry a payload of up to five pounds.

Looking to the future, AT&T has patented a long-distance flight system that allows operators to pilot drones thousands of miles away, and is researching solar-powered units that could fly autonomously for days. (Unfortunately, I haven’t seen AT&T’s 55-foot Blimp, which flies 1,000 feet in the air to connect 100 miles for up to two weeks.) NDR staffers tell me AT&T is also testing robotic dogs that can use it A variety of scenarios can be avoided – from climbing a mountain during a forest fire to helping with bomb disposal.

The company also beefed up its ground and water play with the Amphib. With its huge treads, it looks like a mini red tank, but it can also swim and use rear propellers to carve its way through the water. According to AT&T’s Kelly Morrison, who is also a longtime NDR volunteer, it’s the kind of vehicle that can make dealing with hurricanes that much easier. The Amphib is basically a people and payload carrier, but it gives the company more flexibility when dealing with flooded areas. Given the historic rainfall we recently experienced in St. Louis and Kentucky, as well as the inevitable rise in sea levels, the Amphib could become one of the NDR team’s most useful tools.

Amphib Rotos by AT&T NDR
The rotors on the rear of AT&T’s amphibious vehicle.

Devindra Hardawar/Engadget

Of course, these new toys are great and all, but the core of AT&T’s NDR team remains its COLTs (Cell on Light Truck). They can tap into the company’s existing fiber optic backhaul lines and deploy cellular connectivity in a matter of hours. If local infrastructure fails entirely, AT&T can instead use SatCOLTs to reach satellites. And for hard-to-reach areas, the company now has Compact Rapid Deployables (CRDs) that can fit in the back of a truck or hike to the top of a mountain. The company also stocks thousands of generators – a necessity at any disaster site. While the primary goal is to restore connectivity for first responders and customers, AT&T’s commitment to FirstNet also ensures interoperability with competing carriers.

During the devastating Colorado Marshall Fire that destroyed more than 1,000 homes, FirstNet responders rushed to deploy two SatCOLTs over New Year’s Eve. Additional teams came from Kansas, Texas, New Mexico and Missouri, resulting in a peak count of eight SatCOLTs deployed in support of FirstNet plants and local businesses. The fire wasn’t the only challenge: additional operations required a team to cross two mountain passes in heavy snowfall.

AT&T NDR site visit
Servers and other cellular devices stowed in an NDR trailer.

Devindra Hardawar/Engadget

The NDR team didn’t get many breaks all year. According to AT&T, three SatCOLTs helped first responders during the Yosemite wildfire in July. And as of August 1, FirstNET also deployed two more SatCOLTs to aid in rescue operations during the recent Kentucky flooding. The team has been deployed more frequently since 2018, when AT&T was hired to support FirstNet, and is also responding to the increasing number of wildfires we’re seeing across the US.

And, of course, NDR employees always have new ways of improving their disaster relief in mind. The team tells us that they look forward to eventually using low-Earth satellites, which would offer more bandwidth and lower latency than the existing fixed satellites. Virtualizing their work would also be a great help. Currently, much of their response is to move workers and set up control centers in dangerous areas. But as they move to smaller and easier-to-deploy assets like drones and CRDs, they may not need to field a trailer at all.

AT&T NDR site visit
COVID-ready sleeping and showering units for NDR employees.

Devindra Hardawar/Engadget

After touring the NDR campus, I couldn’t help but notice the cell phones dotting the barren Georgia landscape. I could see towers at virtually every high point in the area, delivering robust 5G speeds on the same roads I struggled to get 2.5G Edge coverage on over a decade ago. It’s easy to take this ceiling of connectivity for granted. And now that we’re starting to see more extreme weather events, it’s clear that AT&T’s NDR team and similar competitor initiatives will be more necessary than ever.

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