EE, one of the major mobile networks in the UK has today announced that they plan to use balloons and other drone-based technologies to help account for areas that are low in coverage within the UK. EE has mainly defined these areas as rural areas or those affected by disasters, with the balloon solution set to account for rural and remote areas that have yet to see a great enough level of network coverage rolling out. While the drone options will be more oriented as a viable solution during disaster responses and to assist emergency response services. In some ways, this resembles the similar goals and methods set out by Alphabet with its Project Loon technology. Although, EE notes their network solution is based on “patent-pending balloon” solutions which the company refers to as ‘Helikites’. These Helikites are essentially helium balloons which come with miniature mobile sites attached to them. Once deployed, the idea is for the Helikites to provide 4G Mobile coverage in select areas.
Due to their constantly tethered and slow-activating nature, these Helikites are a more suitable solution for low-coverage areas. Compared to the Helikites, the drone-based solutions include drones being deployed as a targeting device, with each drone coming equipped with its own basestation and antenna. EE notes that a drone’s speed and general method of deployment makes it the most ideal solution for such scenarios where time is of the essence, such as disaster response, search and rescue, and so on. Although, in such cases, EE has also confirmed that they will be introducing a fleet of ‘Rapid Response Vehicles’ that are able to assist locals and emergency response services to get connected and stay connected.
In terms of the future development of these technologies, EE has not specially noted any firm plans on the rolling out of the drone-based solutions, although the company does note that it is expects the deployment of the balloon-based solution to a rural environment at some point in 2017. The firmer timescale for the balloon solution is possibly to do with the nature of drone technology and the fact that balloon technology is likely to be less dependent on regulatory restrictions. Of course, as both forms do seem to be in a patent-pending status, either could see delays in deployment, going forward. In the meantime, EE has released a new video further explaining and demonstrating the advancements they are making in this respect. The video can be seen below and is available in 360, for those that have the relevant hardware to hand.