BT-owned mobile operator using drones, balloons to provide coverage in rural areas.

EE on Tuesday showed off airborne 4G base stations designed to provide mobile coverage in rural areas and during emergencies.

Called ‘Air mast’ they consist of a mini mobile site attached to a helium balloon – which is used to deliver a signal in areas where existing infrastructure may have been damaged or in areas where there is no 4G coverage – and a drone equipped with a base station and antenna, which could be used to provide targeted 4G coverage, including in search and rescue operations.

The balloons and drones can backhaul traffic using either satellite, or if within range, EE’s mobile network.

"Rural parts of the U.K. provide more challenges to mobile coverage than anywhere else, so we have to work harder there – developing these technologies will ultimately help our customers, even in the most hard to reach areas," said EE chief executive Marc Allera.

EE said it expects to deploy a balloon in a rural environment at some point in 2017; both its balloon and drone-based cell sites are patent-pending.

They were developed in partnership with Nokia, satellite services provider Avanti, self-organising network (SON) firm Parallel Wireless, power specialist VoltServer, drone maker uVue, and balloon maker Allsopp Helikites.

"I see innovations like this revolutionising the way people connect," said Allera. "We’re developing the concept of ‘coverage on demand’. What if an event organiser could request a temporary EE capacity increase in a rural area, or a climber going up Ben Nevis could order an EE aerial coverage solution to follow them as they climb?

"We need to innovate, and we need to think differently, always using customers’ needs to drive the way we create new technologies."

In addition to flying base stations, EE also took the wraps off its fleet of rapid response vehicles. These will support the new emergency services network (ESN), keeping the network running during local site outages and during maintenance.