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Wisconsin Tethered Drone Project to Expand Rural Broadband

This month marks the beginning of a unique pilot program in Wisconsin where tethered drones will boost Internet connections for students living in rural areas within the Northland Pines School District.

A tethered drone capable of extending the reach of Wi-Fi signals to students in rural areas.
A tethered drone capable of extending the reach of Wi-Fi signals to students in rural areas.
Courtesy of Wisconsin Telelift
Drones and broadband will intersect as part of a pilot program in rural Wisconsin that will bring high-speed Internet to students at home. 

The program utilizes a new type of technology, produced by company Wisconsin Telelift, that can allow a drone to fly for extended periods of time. Essentially, a tethered drone will draw power from a generator on the ground. According to Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR), this approach solves commercial drones' well-known limitation of very limited battery power.

"We now have this aircraft that has 160 pounds of lifting thrust, and we can fly it for 42 days," Wisconsin Telelift founder Scott Williams told WPR. "It's so advanced that people still believe it can't be done, even though we're doing it." 

Tethered drones will be outfitted so that they can extend the reach of cellphone tower Internet connections. The hope is that students who live within a 435-square-mile area in Northland Pines School District will eventually be able to access their school network at home thanks to the novel combination of multiple technologies. The solution will be tested starting this month.

"This isn't the holy grail of solutions that, boom, just solves it and now rural people will have Internet," Northland Pines Administrator Scott Foster told WPR. "But I do think it has a spot, and maybe it will point us in a direction of a better long-term solution for these really hard to meet areas."

Foster added that the drones will probably fly at night and during snow days. 

The pilot program, which will last six months, was made possible by a $100,000 grant from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, as announced by Gov. Tony Evers. That amount was matched by developer Carl Ruedebusch's Eye on Entrepreneurs Network.

"The future is still these young kids, and we can’t have them not having access to the Internet,” Ruedebusch said. “If this proves out, then it’s replicable in any school district.”

Foster told WSAW that about half of families in the district need improved Internet access. At least one-tenth of those families lack broadband altogether. 

"[A]ccess to high-speed Internet is a necessity and critical to how we live, learn and work," Evers said in a release. "It’s the key that opens the door to new opportunities for our students, our communities and our state, and will be vital to our state's economic bounce back. That’s why I declared 2021 the Year of Broadband Access and proposed the largest state investment in broadband ever, and I look forward to this creative and innovative pilot program to help some of our most rural students get connected.”


BroadbandDronesEmerging Tech
Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.