AT&T took its flying Cell on Wings (COW) out of trials and into a real life recovery situation, deploying the technology for the first time to help restore connectivity in Puerto Rico.

The operator indicated its drone-based cell is providing data, voice and text services to customers in a 40 square mile area around San Juan. The flying cell site will be shifted in the coming days to cover other areas of the island, including a military hospital, AT&T reported.

AT&T said the drone, which hovers at altitudes of between 200 feet and 400 feet, can spread coverage further than traditional ground-based temporary cell sites. The operator added this initial deployment will help it assess how best to use the technology in disaster recovery situations going forward.

The flying COW is just one of many avenues AT&T used to restore connectivity in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria in September. The operator also deployed cells-on-wheels and satellite trucks and even partnered with Google’s Project Loon.

As of 6 November, the Federal Communications Commission reported nearly 48 per cent of cell sites on Puerto Rico remained out of service, but 74 per cent of the population currently has coverage thanks to operator efforts.

The decision to deploy drones comes a little over a year after AT&T first began kicking around the idea in July 2016. However, it isn’t the only US operator exploring airborne options.

Verizon also conducted tests of a flying cell providing coverage from a fixed wing drone. Just after Hurricane Maria hit in September, Sprint announced the successful trial of a drone-mounted small cell.

At the Competitive Carriers Association’s annual conference in October, Sprint COO Guenther Ottendorfer told Mobile World Live Sprint’s flying cell will likely be ready for prime time in the first half of 2018. Check out the video below for more details.