Staff-written white paper explores airborne technologies to maintain communications in the face of major disruptions.

The sequence is predictable: first the disaster, then the finger-pointing over the failure of emergency communications. We saw it on 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and even the eventful Mineral VA earthquake, the one that toppled plastic lawn chairs miles away.

Now the FCC has issued a white paper aimed at solving the problem of communications in the aftermath of a disaster. The new acronym is DACA, for “Deployable Aerial Communications Architecture”: a set of techniques for hoisting a communications system to an altitude suitable for relaying signals. The paper mentions four specific approaches.

  • Small unmanned aerial vehicles: hand-launched, battery-powered aircraft that fly at an altitude of about 500 feet. Think of those model helicopters they sell at the mall, but bigger.
  • Weather balloon technologies that can carry a six-pound repeater package, although only for short periods of time.
  • High altitude long distance unmanned vehicles that can operate for longer durations with heavier payloads. 
  • Deployable “suitcase systems” that use pre-packaged portable transceivers loaded onto low-flying aircraft.

The white paper, though, leaves a lot of questions unanswered. The biggest omission, to us, is a failure to mention that none of the proposed DACA systems would operate on its own. Each of the options, rather, is a mechanism for relaying communications from the ground. But those ground-based communications in turn must depend on the same facilities that are vulnerable to damage, flooding, or power failure. The white paper does mention the importance of satellite communications in disaster scenarios, but satellite systems likewise merely relay signals between ground-based earth stations. Thus, even with DACA in place, communications systems remain vulnerable.

Also missing from the white paper is any detailed discussion of frequencies DACA systems might use without causing interference to whatever terrestrial systems remain operating. And we hope that future work acknowledges the important contributions of amateur radio operators to post-disaster communications, with provisions to improve the reliability of their efforts.

The white paper does contain an interesting new idea.

Past discussions of communications following a disaster have focused mostly on the needs of first responders. Here, though, the FCC, while mentioning the need for uninterrupted public safety communications, also seeks to maintain consumer services such as cellular, Wi-Fi, and Internet. This would allow the public to stay in touch and informed, notwithstanding major hurricane or earthquake damage – although some of the public we know will take the opportunity to keep up with Facebook updates and watch funny cat videos, even while the storm rages and the earthquake rocks the foundations.

The FCC took the release of the white paper as an opportunity to expand its toy room.   Exhibits there during September include DACA equipment, along with “command and control” solutions and situational awareness devices, and vehicle mounted platforms for public safety communications. (While the FCC’s announcement of the display of this gear includes the obligatory fine-print disclaimer that inclusion in the display does not constitute Commission endorsement of any particular device, more prominently in that announcement we are told that the display “showcase[es] a range of state-of-the-art tools”, including the “latest” in certain types of devices.)

The next step in developing these ideas will be a Notice of Inquiry that asks the public what issues the FCC should consider in moving toward implementation. That will be a key step. A lot of seemingly good ideas break down when it comes to specifics. We look forward to seeing whether DACA can survive the transition from rough outline to operational details.