SPL demonstrates world first 5G connectivity from stratosphere

Cambridge-based Stratospheric Platforms has demonstrated five hours of 5G broadband connectivity between a ‘5G stratospheric mast’ flying at 45,000 ft and a 5G smartphone.

View of Saudi Arabia from the Stratosphere (Credit SPL)

The world’s first telecoms trial was conducted in conjunction with the Saudi Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC) in the skies over The Red Sea Project. Engineers connected to the local telecom network and perform tests between a 5G base station, flying stratospheric antenna and retail mobile devices.

The trial projected a 5G signal to an area of ​​450 km2 and proved that the technology can achieve mobile download speeds of 90 Mb/s comparable to 5G terrestrial networks at a significantly lower cost.

The joint team conducted three-way video calls between the land test site, a mobile device operated from a boat, and a control site 950 km away. Further land and heliborne testing showed that a user could stream 4K video to a mobile phone with an average latency of 1 millisecond above network speed. Signal strength tests, using a 5G device moving at 100 km/h, demonstrated full interoperability with masts on the ground and a consistent ‘five bars’ in known white spots.


“We see this as a major breakthrough in the telecom sector due to the future limitations of masts on land,” said Neal Unitt-Jones, Commercial Vice President Stratospheric Platforms Limited (SPL), Bihar Engineering told via email. “As consumers demand higher mobile speeds – 6G and above – data transfer is increasing at the expense of wavelength, meaning the distance between domestic cell towers is expected to decrease to ~500 meters. This technological limitation will affect rural and remote areas as well as local objections to multiple pylons in each street.”

The trial was conducted in a Grob 520 with a 5G cell, but the company will come to market with its own High Altitude Platform (HAP), a composite design with a wingspan similar to a 787 Dreamliner.

Unitt-Jones added that the remotely piloted plane will take off from commercial runways and stay in the stratosphere for a week without needing to refuel.

“One Stratomast can replace 450 terrestrial mobile masts, providing network operators with huge savings in capital and operational expenditures,” he said.

The HAP will carry a large phased array antenna designed for standard LTE/5G smartphones. SPL said the antenna makes it possible to “paint” almost any kind of beam coverage on the ground, and that 20 kW of power for the antenna allows coverage equivalent to about 500 terrestrial masts.

The first-series aircraft will be powered by hydrogen combustion engines supplied by ‘a world leader in aircraft engines’. The company added that it is working on fuel cells for its Series 2 aircraft.

SPL forecast commercial launch in 2025, with the company supplying the tower and telecommunications companies that provide customer service.

Abhishek Maheswari
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