It’s reasonable to say in the present day we all desire and expect to have wireless connectivity everywhere, all the time. However, emergency situations, man-made or weather related, the infrastructure that provides this is often compromised. When roads are flooded, it is not possible to have wires/cables to provide connectivity, especially in most remote locations. In such situations, mobile operators have little or no options left to reinstate mobile coverage. Drones and/or balloons might be the answer. However, a coverage solution deploying balloons and drones needs to meet three requirements: low weight and low power consumption, so the balloon can remain in the sky; wireless backhaul as fiber might not necessarily be available; and self-configuration & self-optimization, so anyone can deploy it and ensure it works.

Back in October 2016, Parallel Wireless and EE demonstrated their innovations in rapidly delivering mobile coverage in the historic English city of York, pushing the envelope by taking small cells to the skies. The site of this demo: the famous York Racecourse has held horse races since 1730’s. On the bright Wednesday morning, that turned dull and drizzly by the afternoon, we successfully managed to carry out this ambitious demo. This post looks at how the technical challenges were solved.

Helikites (Helium balloon + kite) have the advantage of being stable even in windy conditions wherein other types of aerostats like balloons might come crashing to the ground.

As seen in the picture below, the equipment on the Helikite represents a complete standalone LTE/4G Base-station with integrated wireless backhaul solution. The Helikite is tethered and supplied with power from the ground. By supplying power from the ground, the Helikite can stay up and remain continuously in operation. An alternative solution is to mount portable batteries on the Helikite but in that case the batteries would need replacing every couple of hours. Bigger batteries would last longer but they would also be heavier; the Helikite would be able to compensate for this by being larger however this will increase the manufacturing, operating and transporting costs which is not an ideal in emergency situations.

Once the Helikite is launched, it is fully self-configurable, without the need for any local intervention. The height of the Helikite along with the power of Small Cell will decide the area that will be covered by the radio frequencies emitted from the small cell. For the purpose of this demo, the Helikite was at an altitude of 100 nearly meters, providing a coverage area of 1km radius.

It should be noted that with the ground powered setup, the flying duration is not limited by radio equipment, it is limited only by the Helikite and the helium status.

On the Helikite we have Parallel Wireless small cell and wireless backhaul module, both linking back to Parallel Wireless HetNet Gateway (HNG). For the purposes of this demo, a network in the box (NIB) was used. In a real-life deployment, a NIB or a real network would work without any issues.

For the purposes of the demo, 10 Android mobile phones were used. The phones all had VoLTE clients on them. As the demo only used 4G, voice part was demoed using VoLTE. Please enjoy the pictures below from the demo.

In addition to the emergency scenarios, this kind of setup could also be used to provide temporary coverage for events and festivals to increase network coverage and capacity.

Another obvious question would be: Drone or Balloon/Helikite? While both the Drone and Helikite can be used in the above scenarios, Drones are more suitable for a temporary coverage lasting few hours. The drone operation is limited by the amount of power as well as assisted operation. On the other hand, they are quicker to deploy but may also be limited by the amount of weight and setup they can carry. Helikites are much more suitable as a longer term temporary coverage solution.

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Please watch Mansoor Hanif’s, talking about this demo during Facebook’s TIP summit in fall 2016:

We would like to thank EE’s team for this opportunity. We are very enthusiastic about connecting the unconnected with our innovation, on land, boat, and now in the sky.