Virgin Media O2 trials 5G drone in Snowdonia

Comms operator trials new 5G drone technology to increase safety for millions of visitors at North Wales national park, delivering network coverage to remote areas and helping emergency services to respond to distress calls better

More than one-third of visitors to Britain’s national parks could be worried about getting lost on a walking or hiking holiday, says research from Virgin Media O2. Aiming to allay people’s fears of being unable to contact anyone in remote areas, the operator has now announced plans to trial 4G and 5G connected drone technology with the Snowdonia Aerospace Centre to help emergency services and mountain rescue volunteers to protect lives at the North Wales beauty spot.

Visitor numbers to national parks have increased since the pandemic, with emergency services having to deal with record numbers of call-outs across England and Wales this year – up about 40% from 2019 and 15% from 2020.

The data is backed up by Virgin Media O2 research, which shows that 63% of Britons visited at least one UK national park in the last year and more than one-third (34%) would include walking or hiking in a UK holiday to save money because of the cost-of-living crisis.

However, getting lost (35%), injured (33%) and being unable to contact anyone (31%) were some of the key concerns expressed by people considering a walking or hiking holiday, potentially putting them off visiting a national park.  

Also, according to the Mountain rescue England and Wales annual review 2022, and the Scottish mountain rescue statistics report 2021, rescue teams responded to a record 3,629 call-outs in England and Wales last year, up 40% from pre-pandemic levels, as over half (53%) of Brits say they are more likely to consider walking or hiking post-pandemic.

In rural areas such as Snowdonia, emergency services are reliant on receiving 999 calls. However, mobile connections can often be interrupted by the extreme landscape, which impacts emergency calls and the reliability of geographical location data – essential for finding people who are lost or in need of urgent help. Such logistics prove extremely difficult for search and rescue teams to narrow the search area when they are called out across vast, remote landscapes.

The Virgin Media O2 trial aims to solve these challenges by providing a standalone airborne 5G NR (New Radio) network, which will enable the delivery of coverage to remote areas and retain geographical location data for calls. It will also allow mountain rescue teams to go beyond purely voice calls, with the next-gen connectivity enabling picture sharing and video calling, which could even help teams guide people back to safety without needing to send out a team of volunteers, saving valuable time and resource.

Virgin Media O2 will enable 4G and 5G connectivity in the Snowdonia area via the Dragon unmanned aircraft system provided by Snowdonia Aerospace. The drone will act as an airborne network, should visitors need mobile connectivity for assistance. It will also allow first responders to access essential information, assess situations at speed, and easily locate and save people who are in danger.

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The trials are exploring how connectivity can provide key support to emergency services so they can respond more quickly, decisively and efficiently to hikers stranded in the park, as well as cutting costs and being more environmentally friendly.

Funded to date by the Innovate UK Future Flight Challenge and a Department for Transport drone technology research and innovation grant, the project involves Virgin Media O2, Snowdonia Aerospace, SwiftFlight Avionics, Wavemobile, and the Welsh government. The trial would extend Virgin Media O2’s commitment to pursue connectivity-enabled innovations that solve real issues and make an impact on consumers and businesses, which is part of the company’s overall ambition to upgrade the UK with connectivity. 

“This project is a further example of how 5G technologies can provide real societal benefits for people around the UK, wherever they are,” said Kirsty Bright, director of network innovation and transformation at Virgin Media O2. “This trial could transform how emergency services operate and react to life-threatening situations, and make people feel safer while enjoying national parks.

“We have already run our first successful test flights at Llanbedr airport with the Snowdonia Aerospace team and look forward to demonstrating how it can support mountain rescue teams across Snowdonia. Trials like this are all part of our wider commitment to upgrade the UK and show the power of 5G connectivity.”

Sarah Jones, volunteer with North Wales Mountain Rescue Association, added: “Every day, Snowdonia welcomes visitors from across the UK, all with varying levels of hiking experience. With the research showing just how popular walking and hiking remains with British holidaymakers, trials like the one with Virgin Media O2 are increasingly important to keep hikers safe, particularly if they opt to walk alone.”

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