SoftBank subsidiary HapsMobile, a joint venture established in 2017 by SoftBank and U.S. aerospace company Aerovironment, has announced a partnership with Loon, an Alphabet unit developing a network of balloons that beam internet access to remote areas. HapsMobile will invest $125 million in Loon as part of a “long-term strategic partnership,” with Loon also gaining the right to invest the same amount in HapsMobile at a later date.
HapsMobile used the partnership announcement with Loon to officially unveil Hawk 30, which is an unmanned drone built for “stratospheric telecommunications” that travels at altitudes of 20 kilometers. The Hawk 30 is 78 meters long, with solar panels and 10 propellers mounted to its wings. It flies at around 110 kilometers per hour and — given that it travels above the clouds — is constantly in contact with sunlight. That, combined with a favorable stratospheric climate, means the aircraft can fly nonstop for several months at a time. The company said it will begin testing the service in Hawaii and elsewhere, with the goal of mass producing the drones for commercial service by 2023.
SoftBank wrote of the partnership, “The companies are actively exploring commercial collaborations to accelerate the deployment of high altitude network connectivity solutions, with a focus on expanding mobile internet penetration, enabling internet of things (IoT) applications, and assisting in the deployment of 5G.”
What actually is the HAPS?
HAPS an acronym for “high-altitude platform station” refers to an aircraft that can be operated similar to a stationary Earth-bound telecommunications base for the purpose of delivering connectivity to places where cables can’t be laid. Moreover, as the internet of things (IoT) and 5G continue to gain steam, solar-powered drones can link in with existing telecommunications infrastructure to provide additional capacity while ensuring constant connectivity when unforeseen events — such as natural disasters — hit the ground.
HapsMobile president and CEO Junichi Miyakawa stated during the press release “Even in this current era of coming 5G services, we cannot ignore the reality that roughly half of the world’s population is without internet access. Through HAPS, we aim to eliminate the digital divide and provide people around the world with the innovative network services that they need.”
HapsMobile and Loon’s partnership also plans to build various commercial collaborations to “accelerate the deployment of high-altitude network connectivity solutions,” which will include bringing mobile internet to more people and powering the burgeoning IoT and 5G movements.
“We see joining forces as an opportunity to develop an entire industry, one which holds the promise of bringing connectivity to parts of the world no one thought possible,” added Loon CEO Alastair Westgarth. “This is the beginning of a long-term relationship based on a shared vision for expanding connectivity to those who need it.”
While solar-powered drones won’t replace traditional internet infrastructure anytime soon, they do represent part of a bigger push to increase coverage and capacity by developing new technologies — this includes huge investments in constellations of micro-satellites that will deliver broadband across the globe. According to SoftBank Stratospheric drones operate between ground infrastructure and satellites, which helps avoid some of the issues associated with other methods, such as “ground clutter and significant latency issues.”
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