AT&T’s New First-of-its-Kind Blimp Helps First Responders During Major Natural Disasters

The 55-foot aerostat is an addition to AT&T's FirstNet public safety communications platform, which is designed to help responders stay connected during large-scale catastrophes. Launched last year in partnership with First Responder Network Authority, the platform now has more than 1M connections in service.

AT&T is adding a 55-foot aerostat—more commonly known as a blimp—called FirstNet One to its FirstNet public safety communications platform. With the “first-of-its-kind public safety communications solution,” AT&T intends to help responders stay connected in the midst of large-scale, catastrophic events.

FirstNet One is what AT&T calls a “giant addition” to FirstNet’s disaster response arsenal. The aerostat is the 76th deployable network asset in AT&T’s fleet joining Satellite Cells on Wheels and Flying Cells on Wings (Flying COWs).

The blimp (see it in action here) has advantages over other assets, such as flying up to 1,000 feet, providing potentially two-times the coverage area, the ability to stay aloft for two weeks, and being fully operational in winds up to 50 MPH. It also reduces the need for multiple ground-based portable cell sites, which allows those assets to be used by other agencies.

[Image: AT&T/YouTube]

“Today, we introduced another industry-first with the addition of FirstNet One, a deployable blimp, to our FirstNet response fleet. As the next step beyond our ground-breaking use of drones and Flying COWs (Cell on Wings), this latest foray into the sky further broadens the reach of our fleet of temporary service solutions, which includes ground-based assets such as Cell on Wheels (COWs) and heavy-duty Satellite Cell on Light Trucks or SatCOLTs,” wrote Chris Sambar, executive vice president of AT&T Technology Operations, in a company blog post.

AT&T said this advances its public safety mission of designing applications, devices, and solutions that serve America’s first responders.

The FirstNet wireless communications platform for public safety communications was announced in March 2018 as a public-private partnership between AT&T and the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet Authority). It has since grown to more than 10,000 public safety agency and organization subscribers across the U.S. and more than 1 million FirstNet connections in service.

According to Jason Porter, senior vice president of the FirstNet Program at AT&T, FirstNet is the only wireless communications platform built from the ground up just for the public safety community. Subscribing first responders are equipped with what he says are “innovative, mission-focused tools, technologies, and features they can’t get anywhere else.”

“Public safety is called upon to handle emergencies every single day. They have to be ready for the worst with the best tools to help them respond safely, efficiently and effectively,” Porter said in a statement. “We’re honored to see FirstNet play a supporting role in that response for thousands of agencies across the country.”

The FirstNet One blimp was tested in Tuskegee, Alabama at Sharpe Field to benchmark its coverage area, airworthiness, payload lift potential, avionics and flight controls, and performance of the power and data transmission lines connected to the network core.

[Image: AT&T/YouTube]

Other field test elements included operational methods, procedures, and safety standards required to deploy, launch, operate, and recover the asset in a public safety incident response scenario.

“Witnessing the FirstNet One aerostat airborne test was fascinating and being onsite to see the operations and speak with the team reinforced the value of the FirstNet communications platform,” said Alabama Emergency Management Agency Director Brian Hastings. “This FirstNet relationship is critical to exploring innovative and creative communication capabilities.”

FirstNet One and the platform’s other portable assets—including three Flying COWs—are available 24/7 at no charge to subscribers for use during incidents like natural disasters. The Dallas-headquartered telecom giant also announced it plans to launch FirstNet Push-to-Talk in early 2020 to enhance first responders’ communication capabilities.

Per AT&T, FirstNet currently covers more than 99 percent of the U.S. population. Take for example last year’s Hurricane Michael, where FirstNet assets were deployed in Florida for more than three months during recovery. AT&T said FirstNet One could be deployed in similar situations—AT&T’s FirstNet team will be the ones determining the appropriate asset to send.

“Since its launch, FirstNet has created a dedicated marketplace for public safety broadband communications that never existed before, and we are only scratching the surface on the innovations this network is driving,” said FirstNet Authority’s Edward Parkinson.

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