Airborne 5G masts: Cambridge Consultants’ ‘breakthrough’

By Paddy Smith
Cambridge Consultants’ 5G drones are airborne, zero emissions, that can hover at 20,000 metres for a week, handling superfast data...

Cambridge Consultants has announced “a wireless antenna unlike anything seen before” in its quest to deliver 5G from the sky.

Working with Stratospheric Platforms Limited (SPL), the company says its new antenna can deliver “affordable connectivity from a fleet of zero emissions aircraft, airborne at an altitude of 20,000 meters for more than a week”, a breakthrough that “could rewrite the economics of mobile broadband”.

120kg 5G mast in the sky

Weighing 120kg and measuring three square metres, the High-Altitude Platform (HAP) promises to be the world’s largest commercial airborne communications antenna, and is the result of a four-year project between the two companies.

A single HAP could cover an area up to 140km in diameter, meaning the UK could get full 5G coverage with just 60 of the airborne communication systems.

‘Radically cheaper’

In a statement, Cambridge Consultants said, “With radically cheaper costs, this new platform has the potential to connect the unconnected in the developing world, to fill gaps in coverage across the developed world and to ensure rural areas aren’t left behind anywhere across the globe. In addition, the hydrogen power system creates a long endurance, low environmental impact aircraft, with low noise, zero CO2 and zero NOx emissions.”

Rollout of the first commercial service is anticipated to begin in Germany during 2024.

SPL chief executive officer Richard Deakin said, “This unique antenna is at the heart of SPL’s stratospheric communications system. 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.

“The development and testing of the antenna has met or exceeded the design criteria and working with such a talented team at Cambridge Consultants has been one of the highlights of the program to date. We look forward to continuing the journey as we progress to the production-standard antenna.”

Tim Fowler, chief sales officer at Cambridge Consultants, said, “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.”

How it works

Advanced calibration across the four tiles of the prototype deliver beams with astonishing accuracy, maintaining laser-like performance during flight motion and paving the way for the huge 32-tile commercial array to now be developed.

Each 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 ability to produce hundreds of beams enables the antenna to reuse spectrum ensuring fast and even coverage across the entire covered area. 

A unique, wholly digital beamforming capability gives massive 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.

Source: Cambridge Consultants

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