The Super Bowl is this Sunday. Over 70,000 people will pack into Houston’s NRG stadium for the big game, while hundreds of thousands more will descend on the Texas city to join the festivities.
And a lot of people means a lot of smartphones.
To deal with the data demands, AT&T, Verizon and other mobile carriers have spent millions to ensure visitors can continue to share Instagram pics, Snaps, Twitter updates and Facebook posts during the week of the big game.
At last year’s Super Bowl in Santa Clara, Calif., nearly 16 terabytes of data were downloaded across the major networks. Verizon reportedly spent $70 million to strengthen its network (including some long-term upgrades) across the Bay Area before Super Bowl week in 2016; AT&T says it spent $25 million.
These companies bring in portable cell sites, called cells on wheels, COWs, (or cells on light trucks, COLTs) to help fortify their networks to handle the load.
But in the future, these makeshift cell sites might not be so grounded.
CyPhy Works, a drone maker based in Massachusetts, has developed a tethered drone, the PARC, equipped with a 4G LTE payload that can quickly be deployed to provide cell coverage at an event. Two PARC systems with the right radio equipment on board are capable of providing cell coverage for about one square mile, roughly the footprint of the Patriots’ Gillette Stadium.
The PARC drone is connected to the ground with a power cord while flying up to 400 feet in the air. Since the drone is tethered, it can fly indefinitely without having to land. Engineers at CyPhy say they’ve flown the drone for hundreds of hours without bringing it down.
Whereas COWs and COLTs fully loaded with networking equipment can cost between $500,000 and $1.5 million per unit, a drone with an antenna system attached only costs around $200,000.
Tethered drones that beam mobile data don’t only make sense for boosting coverage during large events. They could also help get areas affected by extreme weather back online faster if a cell tower is damaged.
After Hurricane Sandy in 2012, residents along the coast of New York and New Jersey were offline for days, leaving many unable to call loved ones or receive critically important information. Deploying a drone with a mobile network payload could have gotten people back online within hours.
Facebook has been working to build a solar-powered drone to beam internet from the sky, but the social media giant isn’t thinking in terms of supplying internet to events or in emergency situations. Rather, Facebook hopes to provide reliable connectivity to places that lack broadband infrastructure.
In September, CyPhy Works partnered with UPS to trial a drone delivery of medical supplies to an island off the coast of Massachusetts. The drone company has received over $31 million in funding from General Catalyst, Lux Capital and the UPS Strategic Enterprise Fund, among others.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.