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Japan’s Telecoms Giants Target 2023 Launch of ‘Flying Base Stations’

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The plan is to launch them 20 kilometers into the sky to deliver radio waves to mountains, isolated islands, and the sea — a technology most crucial during natural disasters.

JAPAN – To further expand their communications services, Japanese telecommunications behemoths are attempting to develop “flying base stations” that can deliver radio waves to remote places such as mountains, isolated islands, and the sea.

SoftBank, for instance, is investigating the potential of launching base stations up to 20 kilometers into the sky using solar-powered flying vehicles.

The new technology is believed to be useful during natural disasters and might be available as soon as fiscal 2023. However, the regulations and procedures governing such projects are still being debated, and it is critical that the necessary infrastructure be put in place. As a result, government backing will be critical.

Solar-powered Base Stations in the Stratosphere

SoftBank subsidiary HAPSMobile successfully conducted a test flight of its Sunglider aircraft in New Mexico, USA, in September 2020.

The 78-meter-long device, which functions as an airborne base station, flew for more than 20 hours. The mission witnessed the world’s first LTE transmission — the type used by smartphones — from a position 20 kilometers above the ground back down to Earth.

The radio wave range of base stations in the stratosphere is substantially greater than that of ground stations. A conventional ground-based base station with a height of approximately 50 meters has a range of several kilometers, whereas a flying base station has a range of over 200 kilometers.

Furthermore, the flying base stations can provide radio signals to inaccessible sites such as mountains and oceans. The stations are also located above the clouds, where the weather is always pleasant, and they can theoretically stay in flight for about a half-year on solar power.

Multiples of the gadgets can be created, so if one falls to Earth, another can be readily sent up to replace it.

SoftBank intends to launch its product in fiscal 2023, with an emphasis on places around the equator with a high amount of solar hours. Furthermore, the technology is projected to be effective in Japan, assisting in the provision of a resilient communications network in the event of a natural disaster.

“From a technology point of view, we are very close to making this a reality,” reveals one SoftBank representative.

Stable 5G Operation

Meanwhile, NTT Docomo stated in February that it would collaborate on the development of flying base stations with the aerospace company Airbus and the Finnish telecommunications major Nokia. Similarly, Rakuten Mobile is investigating satellite-based communication networks.

Because it uses a higher frequency than its predecessor, 5G, which was debuted in the spring of 2020, has a rather small radio wave range. As a result, 5G necessitates a high number of base stations and is unable to reach isolated places or sea-based locations.

However, this issue is likely to be resolved with the development of flying base stations, which should be able to reach anyplace in principle.

Challenge Will be Laws Guiding Implementation

The deployment of flying base stations will not be easy. Aerial base stations have never been built previously, and there are no international regulations governing their use.

If domestic manufacturing proceeds, new legislation must be enacted as soon as possible. Furthermore, the relevant companies will need to work on increasing profitability in areas such as ensuring the unmanned equipment deployed into space are low-cost and mass-produced.

Base stations will be even more important in the era of 6G, which is slated to arrive as a successor to 5G in the 2030s.

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