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Engineering news

Drone could bring high-speed internet to the sky

Amit Katwala, at TechXLR8, London

A new drone could bring high-speed internet to rural areas, sporting events and emergency situations.

Currently, getting access to the internet requires connecting to the mobile network, so if you're out of the range of those towers, you're out of luck. Some large tech companies, including Facebook and Google's Project Loon, are testing mobile antennas attached to high-altitude weather balloons, but so far this has only been used for standard speed, 3G data connections.

A new drone built by Italian company Athonet carries an LTE antenna, which can create a bubble of high-speed data connectivity for up to 100 users over an area 1km in diameter. 

It certainly caught the eye at this week's TechXLR8 exhibition at London’s ExCel centre, part of London Tech Week. It’s about two feet wide, with eight small propellors above a box which contains all the mobile technology. 

Some large technology firms, such as Facebook and Google, have trialled similar schemes for rural areas using high-altitude balloons. 

The challenge, according to Athonet’s Stefano Cocco, is cramming the equipment required for sending and receiving data into a box small enough to be carried into the air. “The drone can not only take images or video, but also create an LTE bubble below,” he told Professional Engineering at TechXLR8. 

Athonet are working with public safety bodies and military representatives to bring the drone to market, alongside a lightweight mast which can be installed in 20 minutes for similar, temporary data provision at places such as music festivals. “For rescue teams or other missions this could be a very interesting application,” he said. 

Other mobile data technology was on display at the first day of the conference, which had a focus on 5G. Mobile provider Nokia were demonstrating how 5G technology could revolutionise the way we watch live sport and music events. 

At the moment, the many thousands of smartphone users mean at most stadiums, it’s hard to get any data. It also means that for critical users like television broadcasters or the emergency services, the preferred option is to use fibre-optic cabling. 

Nokia have developed a system which allows 5G to be used for everyone - both ordinary spectators, and the television and emergency feeds, which can be prioritised. The system can also compensate and prepare for the spikes in activity that occur when one team scores a goal. 

The system involves installing antennas around the stadium, and they could then be angled depending on where the audience was located. For example, during a football match the crowd would mainly be around the sides, but at a concert in the same venue, many spectators would be on the pitch itself. 

Athonet’s drone solution is another option. Or, as Cocco suggests, the technology could also be fitted to a balloon which could float above the venue. 

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