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Drones bring high-speed WiFi to rural Wisconsin

May 26, 2021
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Wisconsin TeleLift founders Scott Williams and his wife, Greta, were working with a nonprofit in Africa doing conservation work in 2014 when they began using drones to help protect wildlife from poachers.

In 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic moved work, school, health care and more online, the Williamses—who had since moved back to Greta’s native Wisconsin—decided to put their technology to work in Wisconsin’s Northwoods.

Earlier this year, WEDC provided a $100,000 Capacity Building Grant to the Forest County Economic Development Partnership for a pilot program using Wisconsin TeleLift’s tethered, drone-based system to provide high-speed internet in rural areas.

The pilot program aims to provide high-speed internet access for students living in parts of the Northland Pines School District who have limited or no access to the internet. In a recent interview, Scott and Greta Williams shared more about Wisconsin TeleLift and the Northland Pines project.

What is Wisconsin TeleLift and how does it work?

Scott Williams: WiscLift is a Wisconsin-based company with the expertise and association to develop and capture the rapidly emerging dynamic network market. We use an advanced unmanned aerial vehicle platform to deploy 4G and/or Wi-Fi networks to underserved areas as required. In simple terms, these are flying cell towers that can be moved around as—and when—needed. The current TeleLift system is powered from the ground via a tether, utilizing 220V AC power from existing infrastructure or standalone generator.

The idea and technology grew and developed out of an actual worldwide need. It’s needed everywhere.

How did you come up with the idea for Wisconsin TeleLift?

Scott Williams: In 2012 we started a nonprofit in South Africa in response to the poaching crisis, and we soon realized there was a constant shortfall in connectivity everywhere. While developing a multilayered approach to poaching, we designed a tethered drone application to counteract the limitations of drone battery life. Sometimes being plugged in is viewed as a step backward. But the reality is drone battery is so limited, and we needed to be in the sky for hours—or days—at a time. A young engineer from the Purdue School of Engineering, Rahul Tiwari, reached out and asked if he could help on the project; he made quick progress and visited us multiple times in South Africa, always improving and growing the tethered concept. When the pandemic hit, we were bombarded with requests on ways to address remote education, work-from-home, and telehealth/telemedicine. The Northland Pines School pilot project grew from interagency discussions with state agency leadership brainstorming to respond to the pandemic.

Why did you choose Wisconsin to test and build your devices?

Greta Williams:  I grew up in Forest County, so when we realized it was time to move back stateside, the natural choice was to be by family. We were somewhat exhausted from our conservation project; however, the issue of under- and unserved areas of connectivity kept popping back up.

In short: the issues we ran into in third world South Africa were very similar to the rural Wisconsin Northwoods. While our engineer (now CEO of his own drone company, Spooky Action out of Minneapolis) continued to develop and grow the tethered drone concept, I got involved in a youth tech project and soon found myself on a broadband working group for Forest County. Scott and Rahul would hash out ideas from time to time, and Rahul realized the remote Northwoods was a great place to test the latest systems. When the pandemic hit, we all realized we needed to fast-track the TeleLift project.

Will you be manufacturing all the TeleLift systems here?

Scott Williams: The Capacity Building Grant is studying what parts can be manufactured in Wisconsin, including final assembly and inspections. We know Forest County and the surrounding area is home to some of the best fabricators in the world. Integration into vehicles and upfitments to ensure a turn-key and standalone system will be done in Wisconsin.

How is the pilot program going with the Northland Pines School District?

Greta Williams: In late February we had a formal kickoff. WiscLift, Heartland Business Systems, NPSD IT staff, Spooky Action Engineers and other community members involved with the project met to discuss the future of the program. Obviously our number-one goal is to ensure safe networks for all students and staff. It was amazing to witness these problem-solving minds all in the same room — all excited about the potential applications the project presents. They hashed out challenges, working together for a common goal. A lot of behind-the-scenes planning has taken place, and our target is to have the first operational network tested in April. Northland Pines, and the Eagle River community as a whole, has been extremely supportive in promoting entrepreneurship and paving the way to make a difference in the world of connectivity.

Where else has this technology been used?

Scott Williams: The technology has been used in response to hurricanes, wildfires, emergency response exercises and various commercial events across the globe. We are excited to be participating in the National Guard Exercise Patriot 2021. This year it is a Wisconsin-based domestic operations exercise hosted at Volk Field in June.

What do you see as the potential of this idea?

Scott Williams: The sky is the limit. As with any developing technology, the list of applications continues to grow. We are currently researching applications for the U.S. Department of Defense, emergency response at local and county levels, and ongoing research in public schools and universities. It’s a duplicable concept that is truly a disruptive technology.

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