MWC Q&A – EE’s Air Mast Technology

Is it a bird, is it a plane? No, it’s a base station..

EE are launching patent-pending balloon and drone ‘air masts’ to connect the most remote parts of the UK and keep communities online in the wake of disasters such as major flooding.

EE, the mobile network with the largest 4G coverage in the UK, will use mini mobile sites attached to a helium balloon – a ‘Helikite’ – to provide wide area 4G mobile coverage where permanent sites have been damaged or in areas where there is no 4G coverage. EE also showcased the use of drones equipped with mini sites, each including a base station and antenna, that could be used to provide targeted coverage, including in search and rescue operations.

We recently spoke to an EE representative to ask them about the initiative

You’ve just announced your air mast technology, can you give us an introduction?

We have the UK’s biggest and fastest 4G network, and we achieved that through a relentless dedication to innovation. We’re never satisfied though, and our commitment to providing exceptional network coverage is what led us to develop air masts as part of our disaster recovery solution. The air mast technology will be key to maintaining network coverage in situations like flooding in rural areas, or search and rescue over tough terrain. We have two main tools – the first works by essentially attaching a picocell to a helium balloon – a ‘Helikite’ – which then rises to 300 ft in the air, giving instant coverage to a radius of 4km. The Helikite can stay up in the air for weeks at a time. The second tool is our drone which can again fly at 300 ft, and with rapid set-up time and a 1 km radius, is well suited to supporting search and rescue operations.

What’s the process in, let’s say a flood? How quickly are they mobilised and how soon can people expect to be reconnected?

Once on site, the helikite takes roughly 30 minutes to deploy and the drone can be in the air in just 15 minutes. Both then provide instant network coverage.

Are they still reliant on the network backbone?

The air masts use picocells, which are connected back into the EE network over a satellite connection or using the existing In-Band backhaul network infrastructure. This enables people to make calls and access the internet from even the most remote areas. Even if our UK traditional infrastructure is inaccessible due to a natural disaster, once the airmast has been deployed customers will be able to make calls and access the internet immediately.


Are there any plans to take this solution to emerging markets?

We’re absolutely open to working with partners across the world to help to improve their local infrastructure, but our main focus is to provide coverage for our customers during disaster recovery and for search and rescue within the UK.

What about general use, while it’s not so much a problem for EE customers with your 92% coverage but could they be used to plug the UK’s ‘not-spots’?

Looking ahead, we see innovations like this revolutionising the way people stay connected. This technology has the potential to be used for a range of different purposes. With a concept like ‘coverage on demand’, in the future, an event organiser could request a temporary EE capacity increase in a rural area, or a climber going up Ben Nevis could have an EE aerial coverage solution to support them as they climb.

Who are the partners you’re working with on the initiative?

Our breakthroughs in developing innovative aerial solutions have been achieved with the support of the most innovative partners from the mobile industry and beyond: Nokia has provided world class, lightweight, compact and portable Flexi Zone small cell basestation solutions; Parallel Wireless has delivered a unique technology with self-configuring and self-optimising basestation, in-band backhaul capability, and network meshing techniques; Avanti has enabled a fast, reliable satellite backhaul connection; VoltServer has provided touch-safe and flexible Digital Electricity power over data cable/tether; uVue has evolved drone designs to meet the specific requirements of providing mobile coverage; and Allsopp Helikites has provided the ‘Helikite’ solution that makes a stable, high altitude service possible.