Saturday, 16 January 2021

How long before airborne base stations become a reality?

by Harry Baldock, Total Telecom
Thursday 07 January 21

Test flights of unmanned aircraft serving as base stations could take place in Japan later this year

Establishing connectivity infrastructure is a laborious and complex process, fraught with challenges. From fibre cables to base stations, deployment is expensive and requires meticulous planning to ensure maximum coverage and minimal disruption, often leaving areas with difficult geography without adequate connectivity due to high investment costs for minimal return.    But what if you could erase these geographic considerations and deliver connectivity directly to customers almost regardless of the local geography? What if connectivity was delivered not from cables beneath the earth or a local mobile tower…

Establishing connectivity infrastructure is a laborious and complex process, fraught with challenges. From fibre cables to base stations, deployment is expensive and requires meticulous planning to ensure maximum coverage and minimal disruption, often leaving areas with difficult geography without adequate connectivity due to high investment costs for minimal return. 
 
But what if you could erase these geographic considerations and deliver connectivity directly to customers almost regardless of the local geography? What if connectivity was delivered not from cables beneath the earth or a local mobile tower, but was beamed down from above? 
 
This idea is not a new one. Satellite connectivity has existed for decades, though rarely matching the quality of its more traditional alternatives. But now, more and more service providers are in fact looking to the sky for the connectivity solutions of the future. 
 
For a number of years, SoftBank’s subsidiary HAPSMobile has been working to make airborne base stations a reality. These High Altitude Platform Stations (HAPS) are stratospheric unmanned aircraft that reach heights of around 20 km, helping to deliver connectivity from a lower height than traditional satellites, thereby greatly reducing traditional issues surrounding latency.
 
In February of last year, the HAPS Alliance was announced, featuring a wave of major players from both the telecoms and aviation industries, including Nokia, Ericsson, a subsidiary of Airbus, Deutsche Telekom, and Telefonica, all collaborating to help bring the technology to market. The concept is gaining particular traction in countries where the population (and therefore traditional connectivity) is focussed on dense urban areas leaving large swathes of the nation uncovered; in Australia for example, 90% of the country’s population is covered by providing connectivity to just 10% of its geographic area, leaving many rural areas woefully underserved.  
 
This concept is still very much in its infancy, however. Keeping an unmanned aerial vehicle airborne to provide consistent connectivity is difficult; currently, HAPSMobile’s 78-metre-long Sunglider travels using 10 propellers and is powered by rechargeable batteries and solar panels. In September 2020, the Sunglider flew for 20 hours continuously on its fifth demonstration flight, but there are still more improvements to be made.
 
Similarly, the cost-efficiency of such solutions need to be addressed. Designing, maintaining and operating unmanned aerial vehicles is expensive, but the technology’s target consumers are in rural areas that will not be able or willing to pay for expensive connectivity. Recouping the costs will therefore be difficult, meaning that we are unlikely to see a wide adoption of this form of connectivity until further research can drive down the base costs of this aviation technology.
 
Finally, there are many legal issues surrounding the operation of devices within the stratosphere, the resolving of which is a major focus of the HAPS Alliance. 
 
HAPSMobile has been working towards the commecialisation of this technology in 2023, with hopes of mass producing their glider by 2027. Despite conducting the majority of its tests in the US, reports suggest that HAPSMobile is looking to conduct some tests in Okinawa or Hokkaido, Japan during 2021. Japan is of particular interest since HAPS solutions could provide rapid alternatives to traditional connectivity in the event of natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis.
 
Of course, HAPSMobile and the HAPS Alliance are not the only players to be looking at aerial solutions to connectivity problems. Indeed, Space X’s Starlink low-earth orbit satellite constellation already comprises around 1,000 devices, with up to 30,000 in total planned for the coming years. Meanwhile, Amazon is planning its own satellite constellation, reportedly preparing to invest $10 billion to launch 3,000 satellites. 
 
Aerial connectivity is slowly growing increasingly viable and, with the investment of major players like Amazon and Tesla, will surely be taking on traditional connectivity providers in the years to come.
 
 
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