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Japan’s Telecoms Giants Target 2023 Launch of ‘Flying Base Stations’

The plan is to launch them 20 kilometers into the sky to deliver radio waves to mountains, isolated islands, and the sea — a technology most crucial during natural disasters.

Shutaro Hayashi

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Image depicting a HAPS Mobile flying base station

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Japanese telecommunications giants are trying to create “flying base stations” that can deliver radio waves to remote areas — such as mountains, isolated islands, and the sea — to further expand their communications services.

Firms such as SoftBank are currently looking into the possibility of sending base stations about 20 kilometers into the sky with the help of solar-powered aerial vehicles. 

The new technology is expected to be helpful during natural disasters, and could be launched as early as fiscal 2023. However, the laws and rules surrounding projects of this nature remain undecided, and it is important that the appropriate infrastructure is put in place. Therefore, support from the government will be vital.

Solar-powered Base Stations in the Stratosphere

In September 2020, the SoftBank subsidiary HAPSMobile successfully completed a test flight of its Sunglider aircraft in New Mexico, in the United States. 

The 78-meter-long device, which acts as an airborne base station, remained in flight for more than 20 hours. The mission saw the world’s first ever LTE communication — which is used by smartphones — from a position in the stratosphere 20 kilometers above the ground back down to Earth.

Base stations in the stratosphere have a much wider radio wave range than those on the ground. The range of a typical base station on the ground — with a height of about 50 meters — covers a diameter of several kilometers, whereas a flying base station has a range of about 200 kilometers.

Moreover, the flying base stations can deliver radio waves to remote locations, such as mountainous areas and over the oceans. The stations are also based above the clouds, where the weather is always fine, and, using solar power, they can theoretically remain in flight for about half a year.

Multiples of the devices can be manufactured, so if one comes down to Earth, another one can be sent up to replace it quite easily.

SoftBank is aiming to commercialize its product around fiscal 2023, focusing on locations near the equator, where the number of sunlight hours is greater. In addition, the technology is expected to be effective in Japan too, helping to provide a robust communications network for any natural disasters.

“From a technology point of view, we are very close to making this a reality,” reveals one SoftBank representative.

Stable 5G Operation

Meanwhile, NTT Docomo announced in February that it planned to work with the aerospace giant Airbus and the Finnish telecommunications firm Nokia on developing flying base stations. Similarly, Rakuten Mobile is looking into communications networks that use satellites.

5G, which was launched in the spring of 2020, has a relatively short radio wave range because it uses a higher frequency than its predecessor. As a result, 5G requires a large number of base stations, and it is unable to reach remote areas or locations at sea.

However, this problem is likely to be solved following the introduction of flying base stations, which in theory should be able to reach anywhere.

Challenge Will be Laws Guiding Implementation

The introduction of flying base stations will not be plain sailing. Base stations in the air have never been produced before, and there are no international rules concerning their operation.

If domestic production does go ahead, new laws will need to be implemented urgently. Moreover, the relevant companies will need to work on improving profitability in areas such as ensuring the unmanned devices sent to the stratosphere are low-cost and mass-produced.

Base stations will be even more significant in the era of 6G, which is set to be launched in the 2030s as a successor to 5G. 

Looking ahead, it is important that the government facilitates projects such as flying base stations by providing support in areas such as technology development and the implementation of laws to guide it. 


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(Read The Sankei Shimbun report in Japanese at this link.)

Author: Shutaro Hayashi, Economic News Department

Shutaro Hayashi is a staff writer for the Economic News Department at the Tokyo Headquarters office of The Sankei Shimbun.