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UK companies secure contract to trial sky-based 5G infrastructure

Aircraft manufacturer, communications firm and cooling systems company join forces to broaden and transform access to high-speed 5G communications through fleet of zero-emission turbo prop aircraft

A team of UK companies led by non-terrestrial network (NTN) telecoms developer Stratospheric Platforms Limited (SPL) has won a contract trialling advanced airborne 5G connectivity from a Britten-Norman Islander aircraft.

SPL is looking to pioneer the concept of using a high-altitude platform (HAP) with airborne antenna to provide wide-scale coverage of high-performance 5G from the stratosphere.

In 2020, it first announced work in the arena as part of a project with Cambridge Consultants looking to deliver superfast 5G across the globe from a fleet of zero-emission aircraft.

The goal of the project is to deliver an unmanned, liquid hydrogen-powered aircraft, designed with a 56-metre wingspan that will, due to its lightweight structure and significant power source, enable a flight endurance of over a week.

Aircraft manufacturer Britten-Norman will be providing key design and trials support for the project, with Marshall Futureworx providing cooling systems technology.

The first phase of the contract will see SPL’s 5G airborne phased array integrated to a Britten-Norman Islander, with flight trials due to begin in July 2024. The turbine-powered BN2T-4S Islander variant has been selected for the programme due to its performance and payload capacity, and the simplicity with which it can be modified to accommodate the equipment. The trial will be conducted under Britten-Norman’s Civil Aviation Authority test conditions.

Britten-Norman will operate the aircraft from its Solent Airport aircraft maintenance (MRO) facility, with the mission to be 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.

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Kieren Paterson, managing director of Marshall Futureworx, said: “We’re delighted to be deepening our relationship with SPL, Cambridge-based technology leaders, 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.”

Kevin Bean, chief technical officer at Stratospheric Platforms, 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,” he said.

Britten-Norman flight test engineer Garnet Ridgway said: “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.”

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