UK telecoms company BT is testing a powerful new antenna technology that, once mounted on a high-altitude platform station (HAPS) drone, is expected to provide 4G and 5G services of up to 150 Mbps over areas as large as 15,000 square kilometers.
BT said it will soon begin trials using an antenna made by tech partner Stratospheric Platforms Ltd. (SPL), which is specifically designed for operation from HAPS drones flown at altitudes of around 20 km. The aerials transmit 4G and 5G signals through 500 beams that are individually directed to provide robust connectivity to areas as wide as 140 km.
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Initial tests will be held in BT’s research and development center using very tall ground structures in simulated deployment of the tech. The telecon hopes its terrestrial dry runs will open the way for the major advantages it believes the system will offer from on high.
For starters, in functioning from HAPS drones, the SPL antenna should allow BT to provide reliable and powerful 5G connectivity to large areas difficult to cover by ground assets, and which are now served using much more expensive satellites. That, the company said, will facilitate affordable uses in transport, maritime security, search and rescue missions, and other activities in remote spaces where mobile phone operation is often spotty at best.
Once deployed, the SPL aerial should also enable greater flexibility of deployment. BT notes that because HAPS drones remain at work for many months, even years before needing to descend for servicing, they offer similar operational consistency as satellites. But unlike those permanent space orbiters, stratospheric UAVs can be launched and used at lower costs, then recovered once they return to earth for redeployment when needed.
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Tim Whitley, BT Group’s managing director of research and network strategy, says successful testing of the SPL antenna and eventual use from a HAPS drone will provide fast 5G service at reduced costs over areas that would normally require 450 terrestrial masts to cover.
“We’re delighted to be partnering with SPL to start realizing the huge potential of HAPS aircraft to further strengthen our UK 4G and 5G network technology leadership,” Whitely said. “This highly innovative and transformative project has the potential to further enhance our UK 4G and 5G footprint, which is already the largest and most reliable in the UK, to connect unserved rural areas and enable exciting new use cases for private users.”