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SoftBank plans drone-delivered IoT and internet by 2023

News Analysis
Jun 27, 20193 mins
InternetInternet of ThingsMobile

Drones using satellite backhaul, and operating at around 12 miles up, will provide reliable, widespread communications for use during disasters and in IoT implementations.

abstract digital network mapping concept / virtual globe of connections
Credit: MetamorWorks / Getty Images

A Japanese telecommunications giant and a California-based drone builder intend to start a drone-delivered internet service by 2023. The two companies, Softbank and AeroVironment, say they’ve assembled the first one already, according to materials (pdf) on SoftBank’s website in April.

The HAWK30 drone has a wingspan of 260 feet and is powered by solar panels mounted on the wings that drive 10 electric motors. The unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) will fly in the stratosphere at 65,000 feet above sea level (12 miles), AeroVironment says in a press release. That’s around twice the altitude that many passenger planes fly at.

Softbank calls it a “floating base station in the stratosphere.”

Benefits of using the stratosphere: wider more reliable coverage

Why the stratosphere? Well, one reason is that lower altitudes often have strong winds to deal with, including straight after storms. The companies say disaster communications could be a primary use case for the drones, and the stratosphere has a steady current.

Also, because of the altitude, LTE and 5G coverage could be much more widespread than any alternative delivery mechanism implemented at a lower altitude. One High Altitude PlatformStation (HAPS), as the HAWK30’s genre of base stations are called, could provide service over about 125 miles in diameter, and about 40 HAPS could cover the entire Japanese archipelago. Whereas a set of older, tethered balloons (SoftBank developed one in 2011) might cover just six miles, SoftBank says.

Others are aiming for the stratosphere, too. Newer balloons, such as Alphabet’s Loon, using tennis court-sized balloons also fly there.

Softbank is a major provider of telecommunications in Japan, a country on the Pacific rim and prone to earthquakes. It is thus keen to find backup alternatives to wired, or even radio-based, ground assets that can get destroyed in natural disasters. Softbank wants to use satellite backhaul internet links, envisaged by OneWeb, to provide connectivity. That upcoming constellation will operate in low earth orbit (LEO) in the exosphere at around 745 miles up.

Improved mobile network connectivity

Already a provider of mobile network service, SoftBank is eager to integrate its HAPS augmented service, into its customer experience.

“Smooth handovers between networks provided by terrestrial base stations and by HAWK30 will also be possible,” SoftBank says. “As a result, communication disruption will not occur even when a person using a smartphone moves from a base station covered area to a HAWK30 covered area.”

In other words, even in a disaster, the customer, which will include internet of things (IoT) enterprise customers, won’t experience a relationship-jeopardizing service failure with the mobile network operator (MNO).

“HAPSMobile will support telecom standards for IoT to accommodate various IoT solutions,” HAPSMobile, the SoftBank entity running the infrastructure says on its website.

Hedging, SoftBank has formed a “a long-term strategic relationship to advance the use of high altitude vehicles” with the aforementioned Alphabet’s Loon. SoftBank, through HAPSMobile, will invest $125 million in the more-progressed balloon-based Loon.

Loon has been doing well. A South America Loon flight was aloft for 98 days in 2016, the company claims on its website. Also, Loon provided connectivity in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria in 2017 and in Peru after an earthquake this year, where the company was apparently coincidentally there testing balloons with MNO Telefónica, according to an IEEE report.

It’s not all about disasters, though, drones could well end up being cheaper than building-out ground infrastructure for remote areas that still require internet coverage, says Tim Farrar, president of TMF Associates, in a recent Los Angeles Times article.


Patrick Nelson was editor and publisher of the music industry trade publication Producer Report and has written for a number of technology blogs. Nelson wrote the cult-classic novel Sprawlism.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of Patrick Nelson and do not necessarily represent those of IDG Communications, Inc., its parent, subsidiary or affiliated companies.