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5G drones take to the skies

5G drone being used for delivery.
(Image credit: Manna / Flipdish)

5G drones are now flying over California, and may soon be delivering 5G access to remote areas of Hawai’i, whilst other companies are looking to use smaller 5G drones for deliveries, site maintenance, traffic monitoring, and beyond.

First, we'll take a look at the HAWK30, which boasts a massive 260 foot wingspan, and undertook its inaugural test flight from NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center (AFRC) in California in September 2019.

The HAWK30 is a solar-powered 5G drone – also known as a high-altitude pseudo-satellite (HAPS) – that could soon be sweeping through our skies, flying non-stop for six months at a time, whilst beaming 5G back to Earth. And the HAWK30 drone has the ability to fly above jet traffic at 65,000 to 80,000 feet, providing wireless services to areas where cell phone service is currently unavailable.

The project is currently being developed by The University of Hawai’i (UH), in partnership with SoftBank, AeroVironment, and Alphabet (the parent company of Google). And the tech connection doesn’t stop there, because - if approved - the HAWK30 will eventually move from California to Hawaii’s Lanai island for its final testing, an island which is currently 97% owned by Larry Ellison (Founder and Chairman of Oracle).  

Junichi Miyakawa, Representative Director & CTO of SoftBank Corp., and also President & CEO of HAPSMobile, said: 

“We’re very pleased that HAWK30’s first test flight was a success. It was an exciting journey to get to this point. We were able to see HAWK30 take flight in front of us and witness its grace in the air. We’re extremely grateful to NASA for their guidance and operational support. While this successful test flight represents just the first step, we’re moving forward with tests in the stratosphere and long flight duration tests lasting several months up to a half year. HAPSMobile will continue to work toward its goal of bridging the world’s digital divide and revolutionizing mobile networks by leveraging HAPS.”

Unmanned and full of fans

HAWK30 is an unmanned, Iow-speed, high-altitude, solar-powered aircraft propelled by 10 electric fans, and is designed to carry 56 communications relays. Flying at altitudes of 65,000 to 80,000 feet, it is hoped that the HAWK30 will deliver next generation mobile connections to the world’s most inaccessible areas.

“The purpose of the HAWK30 program is to develop new airborne overhead 5G communication, which would provide strong wireless service over a large area, including deep valleys, remote lands, and over the ocean. The HAWK30 program is rooted in a prior—generation NASA “Helios” program tested off Kaua‘i approximately 20 years ago. Watershed conservation and agricultural development are two services to be provided by the HAWK30 program, along with personal cell and business services enhanced by 5G service.”

The HAPSmobile system will spread 5G further, with lower power needs

The HAPSmobile system will spread 5G further, with lower power needs (Image credit: HAPSmobile)

Tensions mount around 5G drones

The solar-powered HAWK30 is designed to operate up to six months in a single flight, with each airplane providing continuous service, covering approximately 150 square miles on the land. For the proposed project, two airplanes will be utilized, and will remain centered above Lana‘i airspace.

However, local tensions have been heightened, following health scares surrounding 5G dangers. And a campaign is building to ground the project, amidst fears that it may cause harm to the local community of Lana’i. These fears have been addressed head on by the HAWK30 project, though, with documentation claiming that: “The way HAWK30 projects cellular radio waves downward to the surface of the earth, with only one Watt of transmit power required to cover a surface area equal to the entire island of Lana‘i, compared to the 8 to 10 Kilowatts of power it would take to power normal cell towers transmitting horizontally. This low wattage reduces or eliminates health concerns associated with powerful radio transmission.”

5G drones for delivery and beyond

5G drone being used for delivery.

(Image credit: Manna / Flipdish)

AS well as the huge drones that could deliver 5G services, there are also much smaller devices, which companies hope to use for deliveries, and monitoring, and Verizon wants to be the first telco to use 5G to enable a million connected drone flights to take place. That's some ambition, but the idea has some backing since Verizon bought Skyward in 2016 - an organisation specializing in drone operations for businesses and enterprises. 

Skyward provides drone operators with detailed mapping while operating industrial drones plus there are also tools for overseeing multiple drones in action and, basically, work out what needs to go where. 

Verizon's plan is to enable as many drones as possible to be connected and to transmit video footage in real-time but also to relay back other intelligence such as levels of stock in a warehouse situation

“We've already started testing connected drones on 5G on the Verizon Network,” said Mariah Scott, president of Skyward. “We knew early on that connectivity would be critical for drones. And now 5G Ultra Wideband will usher in a new era in aviation, where we connect and integrate drones into the national airspace.” 

Elsewhere, Irish start-up Manna has partnered with Cubic Telecom to fly delivery 5G-connected delivery drones in Ireland and England by the end of 2020. It is currently testing the tech at a base in Pontypool, Wales. 

The intention is for the drones to charge $1 per delivery. Each drone will have three batteries on board, meaning that they can make five deliveries per hour. Even so, that doesn't seem that profitable to us, but Manna believes that by keeping the drones flying as much as possible it can make it work. 

Dan is a British journalist with 20 years of experience in the design and tech sectors, producing content for the likes of Microsoft, Adobe, Dell and The Sunday Times. In 2012 he helped launch the world's number one design blog, Creative Bloq. Dan is now editor-in-chief at 5Gradar, where he oversees news, insight and reviews, providing an invaluable resource for anyone looking to stay up-to-date with the key issues facing 5G.