BT tests out high-altitude flying antenna

Through a trial funded by Innovate UK, BT and Stratospheric Platforms plan to extend 4G and 5G coverage using antenna technology mounted on hydrogen-power aircraft.

BT Group and Stratospheric Platforms Ltd (SPL) have partnered on a trial that aims to deliver mobile coverage using pilotless, High-Altitude Platform Station (HAPS) aircraft. The trials, being conducted at BT’s global R&D headquarters at Adastral Park, will look at how to get coverage to the hardest-to-reach areas.

The trial, based on 5G HAPS communications, will involve placing SPL’s phased array antenna on a high building (simulating a high-altitude platform), to test its interaction with BT’s 5G secure architecture, connecting with its Open RAN testbed. BT and SPL aim to trial the system with multiple user groups and different potential use cases, concurrently on the same network. The technology could be used to provide communications infrastructure sectors operating in remote areas such as transport, maritime security and search and rescue.

SPL’s antenna technology offers 4G and 5G connectivity direct to consumer smartphones. The company said its phased array antenna, using 500 individually steerable beams, is able to deliver mobile broadband of up to 150Mbps across an area of up to 15,000 square kilometres, which is equivalent to the average footprint of 450 terrestrial masts.

BT and SPL said the phased array antenna and the flight platform powered by hydrogen provide sustainable 4G and 5G connectivity to large areas from the skies, removing the need for extending expensive terrestrial infrastructure in remote areas.

Tim Whitley, managing director of research and network strategy at BT Group, said: “We’re delighted to be partnering with SPL to start realising the huge potential of HAPS aircraft to further strengthen our UK 4G and 5G network technology leadership. 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.”

Richard Deakin, CEO of SPL, said: “The SPL team is excited to be working with BT Group to further advance its breakthrough UK-developed technology. This partnership will build further on SPL’s world-first 5G demonstration from the stratosphere achieved in 2022. With BT, we’re pleased to continue our journey supporting the UK to become a science super-power.”

The BT/SPL trial is among a number of initiatives aimed at tackling rural broadband using innovative technology.

Satellite broadband offers another approach for consumers and businesses. In December 2022, the government officially launched a trial that will see the extent to which satellites can be used to deliver high-speed connections to more than a dozen “very hard-to-reach” locations.

Earlier this month, Spaceport Cornwall was used in the failed attempt to launch the Virgin Orbit LauncherOne under the wings of a converted Boeing 747-400 aircraft. The aim was to fly the aircraft to a designated drop zone for its scheduled release. However, due to a technical failure, the Virgin Orbit LauncherOne vehicle was unable to complete its mission to put the Start Me Up satellite into final orbit.


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