Concept Shows How Drones Could Beam 5G From The Sky
As the ‘5G revolution’ ramps up, a pair of UK-based companies have come up with a slightly unorthodox way to improve connectivity, by using drones to beam 5G signals down to Earth.
A new proof-of-concept design shows how antennas could be fitted to drones flying some 20,000 metres in the air, with each drone able to target specific locations with ‘steerable beams’ of 5G signal.
It’s an idea just crazy enough to work, and is the brainchild of engineering firm Cambridge Consultants and telecommunications company Stratospheric Platforms Limited, who have been working on this kind of technology since 2014.
According to ZDnet, a fleet of 60 drones would be able to connect the whole of the UK to 5G speeds of more than 100Gbps, and would cost a fraction of the price of maintaining the hundreds of traditional cell masts required to provide the same coverage.
In a press release announcing the ‘stratospheric breakthrough’, Cambridge Consultants said:
Operating at a fraction of the cost of building and maintaining terrestrial infrastructure, and with minimal environmental impact due to its zero-emission hydrogen power system, such a fleet could rewrite the economics of mobile broadband.
The company says the environmentally friendly drones would each carry a three square-metre antenna capable of covering areas up to 140km in diameter. The antennae work by creating 480 individual beams of signal, which can be reconfigured and ‘steered’ to target specific locations.
The adjustable nature of the beams means the drones could be used to help connect more remote areas unreachable by traditional cell towers, and could also track specific users.
There wouldn’t be any need to worry about avoiding planes, either, with their 20,000 metre altitude comfortably above the cruising height of most commercial jets. They’ve been certified for safe flight, but different aviation authorities would have to authorise the drones before they could fly in their airspace.
The drones would be relatively small in size, weighing just 3.5 tonnes with a maximum payload of 140kg. The challenge for the companies has been designing antennae small enough to be carried by the drones, but still capable of delivering signal to a large area. The proof-of-concept model currently being tested is roughly an eighth of the size of the intended full size.
Once the system is fully up and running, Cambridge Consultants says the drones could provide connectivity for over 500 million people.
With anti-5G conspiracy theorists setting fire to cell towers earlier in the year, maybe putting the antennas somewhere a bit harder to reach isn’t a bad idea.
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