Could autonomous hydrogen-powered aircraft be the answer to connecting the world to the internet?

Adriana Lima
By Adriana Lima 5 Min Read
origin 1Artist’s impression of the hydrogen-powered autonomous aircraft ©Stratospheric Platforms

One of the major challenges facing telecommunication companies (TELCOs) is how to get a signal in hard to reach places. Billions of people still lack reliable access to the internet or mobile coverage.

It’s not just populations in remote areas that suffer from a lack of connection. Physical barriers such as mountains, valleys and forests can block the signal from traditional sources such as telecommunication towers.

At this year’s Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona, ​​the topic was, as always, high on the agenda and one company thinks it might have a high-tech, greener solution.

“Essentially, we’re building a high-altitude telecommunications mast, and at a high altitude, it’s 60,000 feet, so way above normal air traffic, and it stays up for a week,” Richard Deakin, CEO of Stratospheric Platforms, he told RockedBuzz via Euronews Next at the MWC.

Deakin’s company has completed a proof of concept and is now raising money to build its prototype: a hydrogen-powered aircraft that will be self-piloted, broadcasting signals to a much larger area than current masts of the plants can handle. telecommunications.

“It’s powered by hydrogen, so it’s very environmentally friendly. The exhaust is water vapor and has a huge three by three meter phased array antenna that creates 500 independently steerable beams.”

The aircraft would circle for six days at a time, transmitting the signal to a fixed point throughout the cycle.

“It’s not a very exciting flight plan,” Deakin said. “So even if the plane moves, the ground model is fixed, because the beams only move to ensure they stay pointed at the same point throughout the flight.”

“One plane can do the same job as 450 telecom masts,” he added, with the company saying it can provide 5G coverage for the whole of the UK with just 24 planes in the air at a time.

The aircraft are known as high-altitude platforms or HAPs.

While still only a proof of concept, the company is garnering interest from TELCO and organizations like the United Nations Broadband Commission, and believes it is well positioned to deliver amid recent advances in hydrogen-powered aircraft.

It raised $70m (€65.67m) in Series A funding from investors including Deutsche Telekom, and now hopes to raise $150m (€140m) in a Series B round to complete the development of the prototype.

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Deliver the signal from the sky

Others have tried and failed to deliver the Internet from high in the stratosphere. Tech giants like Google and Facebook had respective projects that were eventually shut down.

Google’s attempt, Loon, was discontinued in 2021. The idea behind it was to use high-flying balloons to provide internet access to remote areas. Their equipment was powered by solar panels and they were filled with helium.

Despite commercial pilot projects in countries such as Kenya and Peru, it was shut down due to lack of profitability.

Facebook meanwhile wrapped up its internet delivery drone project — Eagle — in 2018.

Deakin believes you can have the best technology, but without the right business environment, these kinds of projects are never feasible.

“You need some sort of commercially robust system that can deliver telecom services in a cost-effective way for TELCOs,” he said.

“I think the key is actually in the energy because Facebook’s program got canceled a while ago, Google’s – that was solar too – they just don’t generate enough energy to cover the kind of areas you need to make the cheap stuff.

“We recently did some calculations from a Middle Eastern customer where they would need 49 very large solar powered aircraft to do the same job as one of our HAPs,” he said.

Stratospheric Platforms aims to put its hydrogen-powered aircraft into service by 2026.

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