UK companies to test 5G infrastructure from the sky

15th November 2023
Paige West

A consortium of UK firms, led by Stratospheric Platforms Limited (SPL) has secured a contract to trial advanced airborne 5G connectivity using a Britten-Norman Islander aircraft.

Britten-Norman, the aircraft manufacturer, will contribute to the design and trials of the project, while Marshall Futureworx will supply crucial cooling systems technology.

SPL is at the forefront of developing a High-Altitude Platform (HAP) concept, which involves utilising an airborne antenna to provide extensive high-performance 5G coverage from the stratosphere.

The project's aim is to develop an unmanned, liquid hydrogen-powered aircraft featuring a 56m wingspan. Due to its lightweight structure and power source, the aircraft is expected to achieve flight endurance of over a week.

The initial phase of the contract involves integrating SPL's 5G airborne phased array onto a Britten-Norman Islander, with flight trials scheduled to commence in July 2024. The BN2T-4S Islander variant, chosen for its performance and payload capacity, offers the simplicity required for modifications to fit the necessary equipment. Britten-Norman, operating under the UK Civil Aviation Authority's test conditions, will conduct the trial from its Solent Airport aircraft maintenance (MRO) facility, with missions planned over the North Sea. The 5G phased array will connect to the Adastral Tower in Suffolk, England, serving as the base for telecommunications and mission equipment operations.

Garnet Ridgway, Flight Test Engineer at Britten-Norman, 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.

“The project requires a test platform that can be easily modified; the BN2T-4S Islander has a combination of payload capacity, endurance, climb performance, twin engine reliability, robustness and electrical power generation that makes it unbeatable for this mission.

“We are very pleased to have been selected by Stratospheric Platforms to assist in pioneering this innovation.”

Kevin Bean, Chief Technical Officer at Stratospheric Platforms Limited, commented: “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.”

Kieren Paterson, Managing Director of Marshall Futureworx, also shared his thoughts: “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.”

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