Published 10-11-2020
| Article appears in November 2020 Issue

Drones to beam 5G from the sky

10-11-2020

It sounds like science fiction, but global superfast internet is quickly becoming a reality, thanks to a team of UK innovators.

Cambridge Consultants, working with Stratospheric Platforms Limited (SPL), plans to deliver superfast 5G to ever corner of the globe – from the stratosphere.

An airborne antenna flown from a drone will provide wide-scale coverage at a fraction of the cost of terrestrial networks.

Cruising at an altitude of 20,000 metres, the drones – which are yet to be built – will each carry enormous three-metre square antennas.

This “mega cell tower in the stratosphere” is projected to deliver mobile speeds in excess of 100GB/S in aggregate and provide coverage equal to the combined efforts of hundreds of terrestrial masts.

In other words, it is fast enough to download a 4GB movie in less than six minutes.

The antenna is designed to be light enough to be carried by the zero-emission aircraft, which will use a unique hydrogen power system to increase endurance while reducing environmental impact and noise.

“The development and testing of the antenna has met or exceeded the design criteria and working with such a talented team at Cambridge Consultants has been one of the highlights of the program to date,” said SPL boss Richard Deakin.

“Making the antenna light weight and super thin, whilst maintaining performance, was critical to endure flight for over a week at a time,” the company stated.

One setback however, is that Stratospheric Platforms and Cambridge Consultants estimate they would need about 60 drones just to cover an area the size of the United Kingdom with the 5G network.

The Cambridge-based companies say they would run the service in partnership with existing mobile operators and are already backed by Deutsche Telekom, which hopes to trial the technology in rural southern Germany in 2024.

 

They say they have already successfully tested beaming a lower-bandwidth signal from a plane flying at a lower height.

 

By 2024, much of the UK operators should have built their 5G infrastructure, but SPL hopes the drones could be useful in hard-to-reach areas or over large expanses of water such as shipping lanes.

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