Airborne antenna developed to beam 5G from the stratosphere

Cambridge Consultants and Stratospheric Platforms Limited (SPL) have partnered to develop an airborne antenna that will provide widescale 5G coverage at a fraction of the cost of current terrestrial networks.

Based in Cambridge, UK, SPL is a start-up developing a High-Altitude Platform (HAP) and communication system operating in the stratosphere to enable fast, affordable connectivity in unserved areas.

According to project partner Cambridge Consultants, a single HAP could provide coverage over an area up to 140km in diameter, equivalent to deploying hundreds of today’s terrestrial masts, meaning a fleet of around 60 HAPs could blanket the whole of the United Kingdom in connectivity with peak 5G speeds in excess of 100 Gbps ‘in aggregate’.

With cheaper costs, the new platform aims to fill gaps in coverage across the developed world and to ensure rural areas are not left behind.

The culmination of a four-year project between the two companies, the wireless antenna promises to deliver affordable connectivity from a fleet of aircraft at an altitude of 20,000m, with minimal environmental impact due to its zero-emission hydrogen power system. With the proof of concept now complete, the ultimate antenna is planned to measure at three meters square weighing 120kg.

Each airborne antenna produces 480 individual, steerable beams creating patterns that can be ‘painted’ onto the ground to cover specific areas such as roads, railway lines or shipping lanes.

The fully digital beamforming capability reportedly allows for flexibility in how services are deployed, allowing in-flight reconfiguration to deliver services beyond the reach of conventional fixed terrestrial networks. This includes following mobile users, including trains and autonomous vehicles, and providing coverage exactly where required, for example ending at national borders.

SPL completed its first successful test trial during September 2020, and rollout of the first commercial service is anticipated to begin in Germany during 2024.

“This unique antenna is at the heart of SPL’s stratospheric communications system,” said SPL chief executive officer Richard Deakin. “It was essential that we overcame significant technical challenges in the design of the antenna to enable us to deliver massive data rates in a unique environment where power was limited, where weight was critical and where cooling in the thin, stratospheric air was difficult.”

Tim Fowler, chief sales officer at Cambridge Consultants, added: “Four years ago SPL approached Cambridge Consultants with an ambitious vision: to revolutionise the telecoms experience by beaming connectivity from the sky. Our role, to design and build this ‘mega cell tower in the stratosphere’, has seen us make breakthrough after breakthrough and we’re excited to build on these innovations with SPL, on the path to commercial deployment.”