Rwanda’s drone-based internet project takes off

Well, well, well.

Some stories come back at you just like that; and it would feel like it was a gazillion years ago that you reported on them.

And so it feels with this 2020 article where we reported that the government of Rwanda had agreed on a partnership to introduce 4G and 5G internet into the east African country using high altitude drones.

HAPSMobile, then a subsidiary of telecommunications company SoftBank Corp before it was absorbed this month, signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Rwandan Information and Communication Technology ministry in which the parties agreed to conduct demonstration flights using HAPSMobile’s solar powered drones – called High Altitude Platform Station (HAPS) – in Rwanda to provide 4G/5G Internet connectivity.

We published the story and did not bother to hold our breath on whether there would be a follow up in the foreseeable future. The Covid-19 pandemic was then just starting to give people vision an apocalyptic Armageddon and life plans were about getting to the next day with a clear respiratory system.

But lo and behold; Covid is over; and Rwanda and Softbank are back with news: they successfully tested SoftBank’s proprietary 5G communications payload in the stratosphere installed on the HAPS unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) prototype.

Carried out towards the end of September for HAPS research purposes in Rwandan airspace, the demonstration marked the world’s first publicly announced delivery of 5G connectivity from a HAPS UAV in the stratosphere.

The successful 5G connectivity demonstration follows a stratospheric flight test for the drone, also conducted in Rwanda in June, during which the HAPS UAV carried a mock-up of the payload with a similar weight and dimensions.

“The successful 5G delivery stratospheric test we conducted is promising,” said Paula Ingabire, Rwanda’s Minister of ICT and Innovation.

“It represents a significant step towards narrowing the digital divide and enhancing digital inclusion with innovative solutions. Furthermore, it underscores our dedication to establish Rwanda as a premier global destination for pioneering and visionary individuals from across the globe, where they can harness our supportive policies and regulatory flexibility to explore cutting-edge innovations that address development challenges.

“We extend our appreciation to SoftBank, our partner in this Joint Research Project, and look forward to furthering our partnership beyond the proof of concept phase.”

An alternative for remote areas that cannot be reached by terrestrial base stations, HAPS is a mobile direct communications system in which the unmanned aircraft delivers telecommunication network connectivity such as LTE or 5G from the stratosphere to the ground.

The aircraft, housed with telecommunication equipment, circles the stratosphere, and can serve telecommunication connectivity to an area as wide as 200km in diameter. The sphere of influence can cover areas already covered by terrestrial base stations, giving communication devices in urban areas, where traffic is usually heavy, a choice as to their preferred source of internet connectivity.

In rural areas, where traffic is lighter, devices can connect to HAPS. It allows telecommunication operators to optimise network connectivity by region.

According to SoftBank, the demonstration saw the stratosphere-ready communications payload continuously delivering 5G connectivity for approximately 73 minutes from the stratosphere (at a maximum altitude of 16.9km) and performed as expected in demanding atmospheric conditions.

A 5G-based Zoom video call between a regular smart phone at the test site in Rwanda and SoftBank team members in Japan was tested out and conducted seamlessly, it was reported.

The call was possible because the radio waves transmitted and received from the 5G communications payload installed on the HAPS UAV prototype in the stratosphere operated on the same frequencies as existing smartphones and devices.

“I am thrilled that our 5G payload performed in the stratosphere far beyond our expectations,” said Junichi Miyakawa, President & CEO of SoftBank Corp.

“This test marks an important step forward in our aim of bridging the digital divide with HAPS and other NTN solutions. We are grateful to the Government of Rwanda for their unwavering support and look forward to working with them to study use cases for commercial implementation.”

Building on the results of this successful stratospheric 5G connectivity demonstration, SoftBank and the Government of Rwanda will study potential HAPS use cases and commercial implementation in Rwanda, and other regions of Africa, in a Joint Research Project framework.

Use cases under consideration include the digitalisation of schools and communities in rural communities without Internet connectivity.

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