Losing communication during a crisis can be detrimental to rescue and recovery efforts, so some phone companies have created innovative technologies to combat communication barriers during disasters.
In 2017, AT&T deployed its Flying Cell-On-Wheels, dubbed Flying COWs, which are hovering drones that provide widespread LTE coverage after natural disasters, like hurricanes Maria, Matthew, and Ida.
This year, AT&T's competitor Verizon unveiled its newest disaster relief prototype called the Tactical Humanitarian Operations Response vehicle, known simply as THOR.
THOR was built to enhance the Verizon Frontline program, which is a unified platform aimed at providing advanced network and communication technology to first responders and other public safety professionals during natural disasters.
Frontline includes thousands of Verizon Response Team members that deploy emergency relief devices that bring wireless network to remote areas, ensuring first responders have mission-critical communication capabilities wherever they are.
Considered the "Swiss Army Knife of Verizon Frontline services," THOR combines Frontline technologies, like drones, 5G Ultra-Wideband (UWB), mobile edge computing (MEC), and radios, into one central command center.
The center is situated inside a modified Ford F650 chassis, which is a medium-duty work truck that has won awards for its durability, quality, maintenance costs, and life cycle costs.
The truck's MEC technology is one of its most important capabilities.
Data is processed and stored onboard THOR, instead of at a distant data center.
Because this data doesn't have to be relayed to a data center and back, users experience ultra-low latency, meaning it takes less time for a device to send and receive information, like opening an application or streaming video.
THOR's MEC capabilities ensure public safety agencies, military personnel, and first responders get a fast, reliable 5G network during power outages and in remote areas where there is no coverage, like after a damaging tornado or when fighting a rapidly moving forest fire.
THOR has two masts that can be lowered and raised. The tallest is equipped with its 4G/5G radios the provide full interoperability, meaning emergency response agencies can communicate with one another on-demand and in real-time.
On the truck's shorter mast sits a 10 GB microwave point-to-point link, which allows one THOR to connect to a second THOR vehicle downrange and widen the network coverage area.
Positioned on top of the truck is a 1.6-meter satellite that can receive a geostationary signal, meaning it can connect to a satellite in a geosynchronous orbit. This type of satellite orbits at the same speed as the Earth, so it appears to constantly hover over the same place in the sky.
According to Verizon network engineer Ernie Berthold, as long as he can see the southern sky, which is where the geostationary satellite constantly sits, he can create a network in a place where there is none.
Using this type of satellite is useful because the network is fast and reliable and can be established within 20 minutes of arriving at a disaster.
THOR is also equipped with an onboard tethered drone to enable widespread wireless network coverage, similar to AT&T's Flying COWs.
The drone can also be used to capture real-time video of disaster-stricken areas that can be fed over the network to devices on the ground and the command center below.
This can potentially help those in public safety or the military with risk and damage assessment, situational awareness, or search and rescue operations.
Inside the truck is a six-seat cab with crew work stations and a three-seat command center. Crews can monitor the technologies from the workstations while the vehicle is moving.
The command center is where crews can interface with the equipment, deploy the masts, and control the various Frontline technologies, though most of these things can also be done remotely from a tablet, meaning THOR can be operated with minimal crew.
THOR is powered with dual 80G diesel tanks and dual 12K generators, though it only requires one generator to run. If the truck has an extra heavy load, the second generator can be fired up if needed.
THOR has been developed in partnership with the Department of Defense through NavalX SoCal Tech Bridge, which is "focused on leveraging the Southern California convergence of Installations, Industry, and Research to unlock emerging technology through non-traditional partnerships."
"The next step is being able to respond to disasters. If this vehicle can't respond to a crisis, I don't know what vehicle can," said Verizon engineer Carlo Thompson in a promo video.