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COMMUNICATIONS FROM HIGH ALTITUDE PLATFORMS –

A COMPLEMENTARY OR DISRUPTIVE TECHNOLOGY?


D. Grace1, T. C. Tozer1, N. E. Daly2

Abstract
With an ever increasing demand for capacity for future generation multimedia applications, service providers are
looking to utilise the frequency allocations in the millimetre wave bands, e.g. those specified for Local Multi-Point
Distribution Systems (LMDS). In these frequency bands signals are attenuated by rain and line of sight paths are
required. A possible solution to these effects is to use High Altitude Platforms (HAPs). HAPs are either airships or
planes that operate in the stratosphere, 17-22km above the ground. Such platforms have the potential capability to serve
a large number of users, using considerably less communications infrastructure than required by a terrestrial network.
They can be considered as either a complimentary or disruptive technology – complementary in the sense that they
augment existing infrastructure, or disruptive in the sense that they replace existing infrastructure.

This paper provides an overview of the HAP concept, discussing both advantages and critical issues for Broadband
Fixed Wireless Access (B-FWA) delivery from HAPs with reference to conventional terrestrial/satellite technologies.
Finally, a brief summary is provided of HAP projects underway at the University of York such as the European
Framework V HeliNet Project, in which York is leading the broadband communications aspects.

Introduction
High Altitude Platforms (HAPs) are either airships or planes [1-14] that will operate in the stratosphere, 17-22km above
the ground. Such platforms have the potential capability to be deployed rapidly, using considerably less communications
infrastructure than that required if delivered by a terrestrial network. Recently, the ITU has recently licensed several
frequency bands for communications from HAPs, one at around 2GHz and others in the mm-wave bands, at 48GHz, and
additionally at around 30GHz for Asia. This will allow HAPs to be used for both narrowband and broadband
communications, e.g. 3G mobile and Local Multi-Point Distribution System (LMDS) type services.

The use of the mm-wave bands will require cutting edge technology. These frequency bands are capable of delivering
considerably higher data rate services, due to the larger frequency allocations available. However, in these frequency
bands, signals experience high attenuation due to Line of Sight (LOS) obstructions, and also to rain, which requires
appropriate link margins to be used in order to guarantee availability and Quality of Service.

This paper is divided into three sections. Firstly, we highlight some of the advantages of HAPs over terrestrial and
satellite architectures and present an overview of possible communications applications. Secondly, some of the technical
challenges that must be overcome before communications from HAPs can become reality are discussed. Finally, we
provide a review of work underway on HAPs in which the University of York has involvement. Examples include
HeliNet (a European Framework V project), and SkyLARC Technologies Ltd (a University spin-off company).

Advantages of HAPs over existing Terrestrial and Satellite Technologies


The development of communications services from HAPs will lead to many possible applications. HAPs have the
following potential advantages over terrestrial and/or satellite architectures:
• Relatively low cost upgrading of the platform;
• Rapid deployment;
• Broadband capability using the mm-wave LMDS bands;
• Large area coverage (compared with terrestrial) - long range terrestrial links are severely affected by rain attenuation
(see below) and obstructions to the line-of-sight paths;
• Very large system capacity, smaller cells than satellite, with link budgets considerably more favourable;
• Flexibility to respond to traffic demands through extensive and adaptable frequency re-use;

1
Communications Research Group, Dept. of Electronics, University of York, Heslington, York, YO10 5DD, UK
2
SkyLARC Technologies Ltd, Heslington Hall, Heslington, York, YO10 5DD, UK
• Ideally suited to multimedia services, broadcast, and multi-cast;
• Low propagation delay, compared with satellites;
• Fewer problems with obstructions in the Line of Sight (LOS) paths compared with terrestrial;
• Less ground-based infrastructure required than with terrestrial;
• Lower launch costs than satellites.

The applications can be divided technologically into two major types:


• Low data rate, mobile. The 3rd Generation mobile (IMT-2000) standard includes provision for basestation
deployment from HAPs. The technology required to deliver IMT-2000 terrestrially is already well under
development by mobile equipment providers, such as Ericsson, Nokia, Motorola, Nortel Networks. This area will
require further study before deployment from HAPs, particularly in area of cell planning and antenna development.
The ITU [8] suggests that footprints larger than 150km radius can be served from a HAP (the maximum theoretical
size caused by signals not propagating over the horizon is approximately 500km radius), potentially allowing one
HAP to replace several thousand terrestrial base stations.
• High data rate, potentially fixed terminals. For the broadband services, significant research and development is
required before a service can be offered from HAPs (or terrestrially). The HeliNet Project (see below) is specifically
addressing these areas.

One of the main differences between the different HAP systems is the power available to the payload. Typically airship
based schemes will have 10-20kW available for the payload, due to large surface area on which to deploy solar cells and
large number of fuel cells that the airships can carry. Planes powered by conventional fuel sources such as the HALO
scheme suggested by Angel Technologies will have similar power available. By comparison solar powered planes such
as that developed by AeroVironment[9], and the HeliPlat (see below) is expected to have payload power of under 1kW.
This does not mean that communications from solar powered planes are not feasible. Solar powered planes have much in
common with communications satellites, in terms of available power from the solar panels, payload weight and space
available on the platform.

Whether HAP technology should be described as complementary or disruptive depends on application. Probably in the
first instance HAPs will be used for niche market applications, providing new services to users that are not currently
served by terrestrial wireless, fibre, cable or xDSL – i.e. they augment existing technology and are therefore
complementary. As the technology develops further, mass-market applications will become available, for instance
broadband communications from HAPs could be used to replace backhaul infrastructure for terrestrial mobile
communications, especially in rural areas currently served by terrestrial microwave links. Clearly, that represents a threat
to terrestrial wireless operators meaning that HAPs will also be a disruptive technology.

As mentioned above HAPs are better for broadband services because it is easier to achieve a Line of Sight (LOS) path,
allowing a much wider area to be served from a single base station [6]. At mm-wave frequencies rain causes
considerable attenuation. For a given ground distance as shown in Figure 1, for all but the shortest distances rain
attenuation on a HAP link is considerably less than a corresponding terrestrial link (assuming that it is possible to achieve
a LOS path).
Platform
Base Station

Fixed Station

Platform
Height
LOS

DISTANCE
Sub-Platform
Point

Rain β
Height

Ground
Ground Distance
Base Station

(a) (b)
Figure 1 (a) Side view of HAP operating scenario, with a terrestrial operating scenario for comparison. (b) Received power as
function of ground distance in the presence of rain for HAP and terrestrial scenarios at 30GHz for an availability of 99.99%, antenna
gains 5o, transmit power 1W, for different climate zones. Climate zone F is UK, Climate zone K is Mediterranean.
Critical Issues
Many issues still need to be resolved in the development of the platforms, and some of these also impinge on the
communications payload making it essential that these are taken into account during the development process. It is NOT
possible to simply bolt on a satellite/terrestrial basestation and think that it will work! The most obvious issues are:

Platform Station-Keeping
The ITU has recommended that a platform should be geostationary within a location sphere of 500m radius. This may
prove easier for airships rather than planes. Angel Technologies [7] is suggesting that their HALO plane will fly within
a toroidal volume of radius of 2.5-4 nautical miles (approximately 4-6km). The HeliNet project has chosen to specify a
location cylinder, with tolerances of 99% and 99.9% of time as shown in Figure 2.

99.9% location cylinder 99% location cylinder


radius 4km,height ±1.5km radius 2.5km,height ±0.5km

Centre

Ground Distance
Coverage Area

Figure 2 Preliminary HeliPlat location cylinder for 99% and 99.9% of time.

Should ground based antennas be fixed or steerable?


Figure 3 illustrates the angular variation in position of the HAP as seen from the ground as a function of ground distance
(defined as the distance away from the point immediately below the centre of the location cylinder). HAP movement can
be both horizontal and vertical. This angular variation can be used to determine whether fixed or steerable ground based
antennas are required. If the angular variation is greater than the beamwidth of the antenna then it is necessary to use
steerable antennas. The traces on the graph represent the HeliNet scenarios for the two location cylinders and the ITU
scenario (500m radius sphere). The greatest angular variation is immediately below the HAP. However, it may be
possible to use wider antenna beamwidths at these points due to the shorter path length. Changes in vertical height cause
the most change to the angular variation at short and very long ground distances. At long ground distances, this change is
of greater significance because vertical height changes make up a larger proportion of the angular variation.

By comparison, as mentioned above, Angel Technologies’ HALO scheme uses a horizontal radius of 4-6km. This will
obviously cause even larger angular variations, which is probably why they propose steerable ground based antennas [7].

Figure 3 Angular variations in the position of a HAP on the ground as a function of ground distance, for worst case horizontal and
vertical HAP displacements.
Handoff
Most HAP schemes are proposing to use multiple spot beams over the coverage area allowing frequency reuse, thereby
increasing capacity. The size of the cells on the ground and the stability of the platform/HAP antenna array govern how
often handoffs will occur. Handoffs are used widely in mobile phone networks to provide continuous coverage to
moving users. With a HAP architecture, users may be fixed (e.g. with B-FWA) but the HAP will be moving. Therefore,
handoffs can be more easily handled as movement is at the control end of the link, i.e. on the platform and movements
are likely to be more predictable. Also, the dwell time [7] is likely to be much longer, say in the order of minutes, which
will mean that handoff should occur less frequently. Delay and delay jitter requirements in future multimedia services
(such as video) will however impose much more stringent constraints on the handoff process than conventional 2G
telephony.

The availability of payload power


The major constraint on HAPs is the efficiency of the fuel cell technology, but this is of major significance to the
propulsion motors. Fuel cells have to be able to supply the craft with power at night, the worst case being the shortest
day (December 22nd in the northern hemisphere). Advanced Technologies Group [12] are proposing to augment solar
powered technology with diesel engines, which can also be used when station keeping is a problem.

Restriction on the power available to the payload is most acute for solar powered plane technology. The area available to
the solar cells and fuel cell technology limits the power. At higher latitudes both the variation in the angle of the sun
relative to the solar panels between summer and winter, and the short winter days will have an additional significant
effect.

It was mentioned above that it is expected that the power available for the payload of solar powered planes will be under
1kW. This will allow services to be offered to a restricted number of users. Power can be used more efficiently
particularly through careful spot beam and antenna array design and power efficient modulation and coding schemes.

The HeliNet Project


The HeliNet Project [15] is being funded by the European Framework V initiative and is a three-year project that
commenced in January 2000. The project is examining many issues from the aeronautical (a scale size prototype
stratospheric plane is being built, called HeliPlat; an artist's impression is shown in Figure 4), to three prototype
applications: broadband telecommunication services; environmental monitoring; and vehicle localisation.

Figure 4 Artist's Impression of the HeliPlat

The University of York is tackling the vast majority of the work in the broadband telecommunications work area, and in
addition is overall Work Package leader for the Applications area. Figure 5 highlights the important areas of the project.

The project should enable about 12 person-years of research to carried out in the communications field at York. York is
subcontracting Barclay Associates (run by Prof. Les Barclay a former Deputy Director of the UK Radio Communications
Agency) to provide input on regulatory issues. Politecnico di Torino (Italy - Overall Coordinator), Josef Stefan Institute
(Slovenia), the Technical University of Budapest (Hungary), and the Technical University of Catalonia (Spain) are other
institutions also involved in communications work area, contributing about a further 3 person-years of research.
Other members of the consortium involved in other aspects of the project are, CASA (Spain), Enigma Technology (UK),
Carlo Gavazzi Space (Italy), Fastcom (Switzerland), and Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (Switzerland). A
summary of partners is shown in Figure 6.

Politecnico di Torino
Carlo Gavazzi Space
Platform Development
University of York
Enigmatech
Propulsion Barclay Associates
Platform Design Electronic Control
& Energy System

Jozef Stefan Institute


System Architecture

System Integration Technical University of Budapest

Applications York CASA


Universitat de Catalunya
Environmental Broadband
Localisation Ecole Polytecnique Federale de Lausanne
Surveillance Telecommunications
Fastcom

Figure 5 Structure of the HeliNet Project Figure 6 Partners involved in the HeliNet Project

The main aim of the broadband telecommunications area is to develop an outline specification to deliver broadband
services from HeliNet. These services will form the core of many of the applications discussed in the previous section.
All services and applications will require the following aspects to be considered:

• System Level Requirements - High Altitude Platform networks for communications services delivery will require a
rethink of design LMDS type services, compared with existing wireless technologies. Development is particularly
focussed on the frequency planning of different spot beam layouts, and the feasibility of using interplatform links.

• Propagation and diversity - LMDS have been allocated frequencies above 20 GHz - specifically 48 GHz (and
30 GHz in Asia) for HAPs. The propagation characteristics from HAPs are not well understood, particularly at these
higher frequencies. Rain attenuation is significant at these frequencies so one of the main tasks is to develop rainfall
and attenuation and scattering statistics. This will allow the appropriate margins to be included, allow different
forms of diversity to be used, and highlight any problems with frequency reuse plans developed at the system level.
An important objective is to determine the most appropriate diversity techniques (e.g. space, time and frequency
band) for each traffic type. For instance, separate links can be used to send traffic, reducing the required availability
of individual links, and thereby allowing the link margins and transmitter power to be reduced.

• Modulation and Coding – The key objective will be to develop a range of modulation/coding schemes, suitable to
serve the broadband telecommunication services (with specified QoS and BER requirements), applicable under
different attenuation conditions. These will range from low-rate schemes involving powerful Forward Error
Correction (FEC) coding when attenuation is severe, up to high rate multilevel modulation schemes when conditions
are good, allowing an optimum adaptive modulation and coding scheme to be developed.

• Resource Allocation and Network Protocols – Key objectives in this area include spectrum management, and the
development resource allocation schemes. The schemes will be tailored to multimedia traffic and will also take into
account the HeliNet topology and choice of modulation/coding scheme. The most appropriate MAC and network
protocols will be selected as a starting point, taking into account the choice of network topology. It is likely that a
modified version of the IEEE 802.16/ETSI BRAN standards could be used. Assessing the feasibility of integrating
HeliNet with terrestrial and satellite architectures is also being examined. Evaluation of handoff procedures - it is
likely that it may prove sensible to handoff between cells covered by different spot beams, rather than develop
steerable antennas.

• RF Antenna Hardware Design and Development at 28GHz and 48GHz - The objective is to produce initially an
overview of the requirements for the antenna system to be used for broadband wireless access between HAPs and
ground-based users. The task aims to identify the key issues pertinent to performance and deployment. The finding
will then go on to inform and dimension the basic system. The feasibility of using electronically steerable antennas
on the ground is being examined. Optimisation of the antenna radiation patterns is also being carried out so that
efficient frequency reuse can take place.

SkyLARC Technologies Ltd


HAP communications technology is being further developed at York, through collaboration with a university spin-off
company called SkyLARC Technologies Ltd [16]. In the first instance the company will work closely with the York
HeliNet team to exploit any IPR resulting from HeliNet. Such IPR will be useful for both aircraft and plane based HAPs.

The company is in the process of raising substantial amounts of investment to carry out its own development programme.
This programme will compliment York’s HeliNet work, for instance developing techniques suitable for airship based
HAPs and deployment of 3G mobile services.

Conclusions
This paper has provided an overview of communications from High Altitude Platforms. We have outlined a few possible
applications of communications from HAPs, such as broadband fixed wireless access and mobile telephony. HAP
technology will be both complementary and disruptive, and will depend on the application and market that it is serving.

Before communications from HAPs can be exploited several critical issues must be solved, for which we are developing
solutions. These include platform stability and its effects on handoff, antenna array design, and the availability of
payload power.

This paper has also highlighted a selection of projects on HAPs in which the University of York has a role. These
include the European HeliNet project and collaboration with SkyLARC Technologies Ltd. The emphasis of much of
York’s work is broadband communications, examining system level, propagation, modulation and coding, higher-level
protocols, and antennas and RF design.

Acknowledgement
Support is acknowledged from European Framework V - IST Programme.

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