Starlink-connected drone provides a 'mobile tower in the sky'


Monday, 17 July, 2023

Starlink-connected drone provides a 'mobile tower in the sky'

Fibre and network solutions provider Vocus, in partnership with the NSW Telco Authority, has unveiled a new way of providing critical 4G/5G mobile connectivity in emergencies such as natural disasters, using a cutting-edge tethered drone.

Using high-speed, low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellite connectivity from Vocus Satellite – Starlink, the drone acts as a mobile tower in the sky, providing connectivity across an area up to 28 km2. Challenge Networks, the Vocus company that specialises in building private 4G/5G networks, designed and built the solution after observing how LEO satellite connectivity, ground-based power, heavy-lift drones and compact mobile network equipment could be brought together to solve a significant problem.

The drone takes off from the ground carrying the equipment needed to establish mobile network coverage. A high-strength, lightweight tether cable supplies power and data from a ground station, which enables the drone to remain airborne indefinitely with just brief landings for maintenance checks every 12 hours.

The drone can be used as a repeater for public mobile networks (with the cooperation of local carriers), or to establish a private and secure mobile network for use by emergency services personnel. It can also carry up to 15 kg, hovering in the air with payloads that can include 4G/5G tower equipment, P25 two-way radio equipment and bright floodlights or cameras.

The drone’s data feed comes from Vocus Satellite – Starlink, providing LEO satellite connectivity enabling clear, delay-free calls and data speeds up to and beyond 100 Mbps for connected devices. The drone is flown by a CASA-accredited pilot and can be operated remotely if permitted by CASA, enabling round-the-clock airborne operation.

The drone can thus be used to provide critical support to emergency services during rescue and recovery situations. For example, should a person be lost in a rugged mountainous region with no reception, first responders, in collaboration with the person’s mobile carrier, could use the drone to establish a new coverage zone to make contact with the missing person. Likewise, the drone can serve as an airborne mobile tower in a natural disaster situation where mobile towers may have been disrupted or damaged.

Emergency services organisations recently had the opportunity to test the solution during a demonstration at a NSW Rural Fire Service base in Bimbimbie. The demonstration, led by the NSW Telco Authority’s Next Generation Digital Connectivity initiative, showed how the drone can provide critical communication services during natural disasters, especially where standard mobile networks have been disrupted. The extent of the drone’s mobile coverage is directly proportional to its altitude and transmitting power; in the demonstration, coverage of 28 km2 was achieved in dense bushland.

Representatives of Vocus, NSW Telco Authority, Challenge Networks and members of ACT and NSW emergency services organisations with the drone flying overhead.

“This is an example of how Vocus is using its strength in satellite technology, and Challenge Networks’ expertise in wireless and systems integration, to deliver a brilliantly simple solution for a particularly Australian challenge,” said Ashley Neale, Development Manager Space and Satellite, Vocus.

Top image caption: Challenge Networks’ LTE drone in flight.

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