An aerostat that serves as an autonomous aerial cell tower offers hope for expanding cellular coverage to rural and hard-to-reach areas. The company that makes it, Altaeros, calls its product a SuperTower that lifts radios and antennas more than 800 feet into the air, allowing them to cover the same area that as many as 15 cell towers would.
Joe Ryan, vice president of business and development and general counsel of Alteros, spoke during the Connectivity Expo session, “Sustainable Networks: Opportunities in Disaster Response.” He said the company seeks to lease the aerostats worldwide.
“We are starting in the United States because there is a need and we want regulations in place from the Federal Aviation Administration and the Federal Communications Commission that other countries can use as a model.” Ryan said.
Altaeros is ramping up production, Ryan said. “We hope to lease hundreds to carriers and other potential users over the next five or six years,” he said.
The aerostat was designed for rural markets and places without coverage, Ryan said. He said it has turned out that there is demand for other uses, such as using the aerostat to overbuild in areas where a carrier is roaming or using it as a microwave hub. He said the aerostat will also allow a carrier to overlay an existing network to deploy 5G wireless communications or internet of things operation without having to put new equipment at existing cell sites.
The SuperTowers use an autonomous control system to fly themselves; thus, they do not require a crew and or any human input to run day-to-day operations. Ryan said this allows carriers to expand their networks at a 60 percent cost savings.
Because of the helium the aerostat uses for buoyancy has to be topped off once every 30 days, the aerostat has to come down for more helium for a couple of hours a month during a maintenance window. He said there is also the potential for interruption for weather with wind speeds exceeding that of a hurricane.
“The autonomous control takes weather into account,” Ryan said. “It aggregates data from ground sensors, airborne sensors and outside sources like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The control system makes decisions based upon the data and can bring the aerostat down to the ground, let it ride out a major storm, and then direct it to go back up. It doesn’t sound great to come down in hurricane, but the fact is the terrestrial network is often taken down by such storms. Our onboard intelligence allows us to, essentially, hide from a storm and go back up after when the rest of the network is down.”
For cellular communications service, the aerostat carries antennas for 12 sectors. It has three spherical antennas that cover 360 degrees of azimuth with a large beamwidth that accounts for the aerostat’s motion. Ryan said the system can hand off calls intracell on the aerostat itself, and it has the capacity of about four cell towers.
Ryan said the aerostat is about 100 feet long, and the ground area required for it is about an acre of land. He said the aerostat normally goes up 820 feet during operation. “We find the propagation at that height is good, and the rules make it easier to obtain approval for operation at that height,” he said.
Altaeros is ready to hear from potential customers, Ryan said, including anyone who has equipment that could be deployed on it, such as equipment that otherwise would be placed on a tower — except for broadcasting — and any other complementary technologies. The model initially being tested holds a payload of 440 pounds, will following models to be bigger. Ryan said Altaeros also may plan for a smaller one that is portable.
Massachusetts-based communications infrastructure provider, Altaeros, has officially launched the world’s first commercially available aerial cell tower, the SuperTower ST200. Altaeros successfully completed initial testing of the ST200 at its R&D Center in southern New Hampshire. The SuperTower uses an aerostat platform, combined with automation and control software, to deploy radios and antennas over four times higher than traditional cell towers allowing carriers to efficiently cover substantially more area than traditional towers.
The ST200 was tested with six high-capacity Ericsson 4G LTE radios and three high-gain Matsing lens antennas. During initial testing users were able to stream high-definition video at distances well beyond the reach of a typical cell site, even in the hills and forests of New England. Altaeros is initially deploying “SuperTowers” in partnership with carriers in the United States, with plans to quickly expand internationally.
The launch of the first commercial SuperTower marks a turning point for modern, high-speed connectivity in traditionally under-served rural communities, according to Altaeros. By reducing the number of sites needed in rural markets by over 90 percent, the SuperTower offers a “quick and inexpensive” path to expand service. It can also accelerate the rollout of new technologies such as 5G and IoT in rural markets.
“There is an immense need for a better way to bring connectivity to those who have been left behind by the current generation of infrastructure,” said Ben Glass, Altaeros’ CEO. “We’re proud to be a part of the solution that will bridge this divide.”
The ST200 is the culmination of over eight years of aerostat research and development by Altaeros. Designed to work with many different telecom systems from any number of vendors, the ST200 is Altaeros’ largest and most capable autonomous aerostat platform to date, and the first to be made commercially available. Building upon prior versions, proprietary automation and control software keeps the aerial cell tower in place in changing weather and environmental conditions and ensures a stable platform for the telecommunication equipment.
Multiple tethers connect the aerostat to the ground and transmit power and data to the airborne equipment, which is key to providing significantly greater capacity than other aerial communication systems.
The “SuperTower,” which uses a tethered aerostat (industrial blimp), has been developed to transmit wireless signals across rural areas, roughly the same coverage area of 30 conventional cell towers. Boston-based startup Altaeros recently demonstrated in Fremont, New Hampshire, using an Ericsson Radio System to offer high-speed LTE with streaming video.
Altaeros partnered with Ericsson first deploy a multi-sector LTE base station on a SuperTower in late 2017 in rural Maine. The aerostat uses helium gas to float at an altitude of 850 feet.
The SuperTower costs up to 70 percent less to roll out that the terrestrial coverage equivalent, according to Ben Glass, CEO and CTO of Altaeros. It is designed to combine the broad coverage advantages of satellites and aerial platforms with seamless integration with existing handsets of terrestrial cell towers.
Altaeros, founded in 2010 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has received funding from SoftBank Group Corp., Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and the National Science Foundation, among others. The company has also developed an airborne wind turbine to capture clean energy.
SuperTowers, which can also be deployed for disaster relief or special events on a temporary basis, will be available to operators in late 2018.