Dr Ogbonnaya Anicho, a scientist at Liverpool Hope University, in the northwest of England, has called for High Altitude Platform Stations (HAPS) to form part of all future pandemic strategic planning.
According to UNESCO, around 45 per cent of the world’s population still has no access to the Internet. In recent weeks, the World Economic Forum has warned how the Coronavirus pandemic had exposed the digital divide “like never before”, with billions unable to access school coursework, or to work from home. And where there’s no terrestrial communications infrastructure, a HAPS – or sometimes called a ‘Pseudo-Satellite’ – could be the answer.
A single HAPS flies around 20 to 25km high in the Earth’s stratosphere, avoiding air traffic and adverse weather conditions. It is capable of providing wireless broadband coverage, via 4G from mainstream networks, to the ground below, covering a radius of around 100km.
Platforms vary, with firms such as Google-backed Loon favouring a network of balloons, while Airbus Defence has spawned the ‘Zephyr’ – an unmanned, carbon fibre UAV with a 25 metre wingspan.
Now Anicho has developed a software platform that simulates a ‘swarm’ of autonomous fixed-wing solar powered HAPS with self-organising capabilities – meaning coverage areas can be extended significantly. And Anicho says these multiple HAPS systems, and HAPS generally, could prove crucial in coping with the next viral outbreak or natural disaster.
“In my humble opinion, I think Governments should acquire HAPS infrastructure for those strategic planning reasons,” he suggests. “When there’s a natural disaster and the terrestrial infrastructure is compromised, first responders can quickly begin to use HAPS instead, as it can be set up on an ad hoc basis. And in a pandemic, it’s essential you get emergency messages to people so they know how to stay safe. How do you do that, if there are rural connectivity problems? This connectivity is also essential for industry and productivity, too,” he adds.
“You can see that in most of the developed nations people have found it easy to migrate their work online during the Covid-19 crisis because there’s instant connectivity. Without connectivity, that doesn’t happen, and entire regions suffer.”
He notes that during the pandemic, telecommunications allows the UK Government to provide daily advice updates and to share new insight from researchers. This crucial information doesn’t get through to people if they can’t access the Internet. “At Hope, the multiple HAPS coordination capabilities we’re developing is a small contribution to this field, but it’s also crucial. And on the pandemic management side of things, it’s really important.”
Anicho is hoping to get to a point where fixed wing HAPS can remain in the sky for months or even years.
Anicho is quick to point out that solar powered HAPS – which cruise at speeds of around 110 km/h, or around 68 mph – won’t work everywhere. There are constraining solar variations across seasons and geographical areas. But HAPS will be relevant for many of the developing nations who need it most. For Anicho, it’s now a question of raising awareness about what HAPS can achieve – and changing government policies to improve adoption.
“HAPS technology is still not common knowledge. And it’s my view that we need to get the message out there. One of the main reasons why there are rural connectivity challenges is that operators are not interested in building terrestrial infrastructure because of the high investment cost and very poor commercial viability of doing business in those places. They’re reluctant to invest. There are also relevant policy challenges. Our approach is to address both the technology and policy questions in order to reduce the barriers, enabling operators to scale up easily into those areas. This is my vision. This is what we’re trying to achieve.”
At this point, Anicho’s research is looking at four or more HAPS to create a ‘swarm’ – as well as how to improve power management – in his simulations. HAPS use energy from the sun to charge the batteries during the day, which in turn powers the craft at night.
Long term, the University’s HAPS research team also hope to build a prototype of a solar-powered UAV, subject to funding. In the meantime, it is procuring small-sized drones for use in the experimentation of multiple UAV-type problems, such as routing and coordination.
The cost of a Zephyr is said to be around £4.3 million – significantly cheaper than the cost of an orbital telecommunications satellite, which can cost between £40 million – £325 million to build and launch.
Anicho has also garnered interest from the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation (CTO), where he engages representatives of governments, policymakers and regulators on the strategic position of HAPS for addressing rural broadband connectivity challenges.