Rural areas could get a connectivity boost as telecoms company BT trials a new antenna technology developed by Stratospheric Platforms. The trial will see the tech placed on BT’s global R&D headquarters in the UK then test its interaction with its 5G architecture, with goals to eventually place the tech on a hydrogen-powered aircraft, High-Altitude Platform Station (HAPS).
The phased array antenna is capable of delivering speeds up to 150Mbps across areas as wide as 15,000km2 through 500 individually steerable beams.
The placement on top of a high building is designed to simulate a HAPS which will connect to BT’s open RAN testbed on the ground. The test will include multiple user groups and different potential use cases concurrently on the same network.
HAPS vehicles sit in a sweet spot above the flight paths of aircraft in the Earth’s stratosphere but below satellites. This plus the fact vessels are often designed to be ‘long endurance’ means they can sit there for long periods providing more localised connectivity to areas with poor or low coverage. According to SPL, the Stratomast HAPS, which is under development, should be able to stay in the air for a week on a full tank of hydrogen. It also claims the technology is more energy-efficient and less emission-intensive than terrestrial infrastructure.
HAPS deployment, however, has hit roadblocks in the past. Previous attempts by tech giants like Facebook to use a fleet of solar-powered aircraft to connect remote parts of the world was shut down in 2018, followed by Google’s Project Loon efforts to provide such connectivity with a fleet of balloons ceasing operations in 2021. Yet, The HAPS Alliance, which came into being three years ago and was born out of a partnership between Loon and Softbank’s HAPSMobile, have been working on improving the technology since.
SPL, founded in Cambridge in 2014, is supported by Deutsche Telekom, the third biggest in the industry, and this project with BT is backed with funding from Innovate UK, raising hopes of future success.
With SPL’s technology in the trial, BT hope to extend the reach of existing U
.K . network infrastructure and also have a fallback for terrestrial networks in the event of a disaster. It also has applications for remote monitoring across various industrial and agricultural use cases, as well as providing energy cost savings.
In March 2022, SPL achieved a 5G transmission from its aircraft as part of a joint trial with the Saudi Communications and Information Technology Commission. A stratospheric mast flying at an altitude of ~45,000ft connected to a smartphone, enabling three-way video calls and 4K video streaming.