Telecom Drones

How the U.S. can use drones to prevent dictatorships like Syria from cutting off communication.

News broke this week that Syria has largely shut down international communication channels, much like Egypt did during the Arab Spring. This is an ominous sign, and has prompted concerns that the Assad dictatorship is using the communication blackout to hide crimes against humanity.

While the options for foreign intervention are limited, there is a lot the US can do to keep information flowing when a government tries to prevent its people from communicating. Think of this as Radio Free Europe, updated for the Internet.

We are already using drones extensively for surveillance and counter-terrorism, and could retool them to serve as airborne cell towers. The goal would be to provide basic communication service over a large area (voice, SMS, multimedia messaging and limited data).

Each drone would be equipped with several cellular base stations, each fitted with a high gain antenna that focuses on a particular spot on the ground below, creating a cell a couple of miles in diameter. These, in turn, would be connected via satellite broadband to a facility in the US or elsewhere with reliable voice and data connectivity. The drones would fly in a racetrack pattern (holding pattern) above their designated destination.

When in range of a telecom drone, users would see Radio Free USA as the service provider (no account required, service provided courtesy of Uncle Sam). With a relatively small fleet of high altitude drones, we could provide coverage over major cities and problem areas, and since they are unmanned vehicles, no airmen will be at risk of being shot down.

This is simplifying the technical details a bit, but the components needed to make this work already exist. Satellites used for military communication or NASA’s TDRS system could provide the backhaul link, while off the shelf cellular equipment could be retooled with high-gain antennas (to focus the signal on the ground below). It should be relatively straightforward, and not expensive.

This capability could also be used to rapidly deploy emergency communication following a disaster, especially if units are forward deployed in high risk locales like the San Francisco Bay Area (an extra bonus feature of investing in developing this capability).