Telecoms developer to trial skyborne 5G infrastructure

A team of UK companies led by Stratospheric Platforms Limited (SPL), a non-terrestrial networks telecoms developer, has won a significant contract trialling advanced airborne 5G connectivity from an aircraft.

SPL is pioneering the concept of using a high-altitude platform (HAP) with airborne antenna to provide widescale coverage of high performance 5G from the stratosphere. Aircraft manufacturer Britten-Norman will be providing key design and trials support for the project, with Marshall Futureworx providing cooling systems technology.

The goal of the project is to deliver an unmanned, liquid hydrogen-powered aircraft that, due to its lightweight structure and power source, will enable a flight endurance of over a week.

The first phase of the contract will see SPLs 5G airborne phased array integrated to a Britten-Norman Islander, with flight trials due to begin in July 2024.

Garnet Ridgway, flight test engineer, Britten-Norman, commented, “This is a great opportunity to demonstrate the full capabilities of both Britten-Norman as an accomplished trials organisation and the Turbine Islander as a highly capable trials aircraft.

“Working closely with our partners, the project includes deliverables from our design, manufacture, MRO, continued airworthiness, flight test and flight operations teams.

“We are very pleased to have been selected by Stratospheric Platforms to assist in pioneering this innovation.”

Kevin Bean, chief technical officer, Stratospheric Platforms Limited, said, “We are delighted to be working with Britten-Norman on this programme. The Islander is a great workhorse for this kind of engineering because it can be rapidly and extensively modified to accommodate our equipment.

“The role-based type of mission which can readily be executed by the Islander, combined with the stability of the platform, is ideal for a programme where telecommunication trials require predictable performance.

Kieren Paterson, managing director of Marshall Futureworx, added, “We’re delighted to be deepening our relationship with SPL through this project. It is easy to see why they are considered among the UK’s most promising innovators.

“This is an exciting project to be part of, with so much potential to dramatically broaden and transform access to high-speed communication—while also providing global leadership in areas such as uncrewed aviation and zero emission flight.”

Britten-Norman’s turbine-powered BN2T-4S Islander variant has been selected for the programme due to its performance and payload capacity and its ability to be modified to accommodate 5G equipment.

The trial will be conducted under Britten-Norman’s Civil Aviation Authority test conditions, with Britten-Norman operating the aircraft from its Solent Airport aircraft maintenance (MRO) facility and the mission performed over the North Sea.

The 5G phased array will be linked via a backhaul link to the Adastral Tower in Suffolk, England, from which the telecommunications and mission equipment will operate.