The project, in partnership with NTT Docomo, could ultimately see the glider fly continuously for months at a time, delivering much needed broadband to underserved areas
Last month, Airbus’s solar powered Zephyr S High Altitude Platform System (HAPS) achieved 36 days of stratospheric flight in two sessions, as well as setting a new world record in absolute altitude for devices of its class at 76,100 ft.
In total, Zephyr has now completed around 3,322 flight hours, with the various tests designed to show that the unmanned device can fly beyond restrictive airspace, travelling far above and not interfering with commercial air traffic.
Alongside NTT Docomo, Airbus has revealed that these latest tests have shown Zephyr able to deliver wireless broadband connectivity via an onboard transmitter.
The tests featured various bandwidths, confirming that viability of using 2GHz spectrum to deliver broadband services, as well as using 450MHz spectrum to create connections at a range of up to 140km.
Ultimately, Airbus and Docomo hope to use a fleet of Zephyr to provide broadband coverage to areas with difficult geography, such as mountainous and remote regions, many of whom currently rely on poor satellite connectivity. They will also use Zephyr to provide temporary connectivity boosts to areas when required, such as during major events in a densely populated areas or during natural disasters where traditional connectivity infrastructure has been knocked offline.
“DOCOMO believes that HAPS will be a promising solution for coverage expansion in 5G evolution and 6G,” explained Takehiro Nakamura, General Manager of DOCOMO’s 6G-IOWN Promotion Department. “In this measurement experiment, we were able to demonstrate the effectiveness of HAPS, especially for direct communication to smartphones, through long-term propagation measurements using actual HAPS equipment. Based on these results, we would like to further study the practical application of HAPS in 5G evolution and 6G with Airbus.”
According to Airbus, once the Zephyr technology is fully rolled out to clients, it will be cheaper and simpler than satellites, as well as offering more operational flexibility. Plus, being solar powered, it could also be much greener, with Airbus suggesting that Zephyr is entirely carbon neutral.
In its final form, Zephyr could be flying continuously for six months at a time.
Over the past couple of years, alternatives to terrestrial connectivity are becoming increasingly viable when it comes to extending broadband coverage to hard-to-reach areas. From Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite project and its various contemporaries to Google’s Project Loon, beaming down broadband connectivity from above could well be the future when it comes to providing truly exhaustive coverage.
For the most part, however, these solutions remain largely unproven and expensive, and it will be some years before we see adoption at any significant scale.
At the start of the year, Softbank’s subsidiary HAPSMobile – which has similarly produced an unmanned, solar-powered glider to deliver rural connectivity – said that it was working towards commercialisation in 2023 and mass production by 2027 for their HAPS device.
That said, HAPSMobile’s Sunglider had only been trialled on 20-hour continuous flights at the time, meaning that Zephyr could in fact be considerably more advanced and much closer to commercialisation.
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