Challenge Networks, Vocus and NSW Telco Authority demonstrate Starlink-connected ‘mobile network in the sky’ for disaster relief connectivity

Critical 4G/5G mobile connectivity in emergencies such as natural disasters

  • Emergency services test Australian-made mobile network drone solution with innovative power system for indefinite flight time
  • Provides up to 28 square kilometres of 4G/5G and two-way radio connectivity where coverage is needed in response to emergencies
  • Uses Vocus Satellite – Starlink low-earth orbit satellite connectivity

Challenge Networks and Vocus, Australia’s specialist fibre and network solutions providers, in partnership with NSW Telco Authority, have unveiled a new way of providing critical 4G/5G mobile connectivity in emergencies such as natural disasters, using a cutting-edge tethered drone.

Using high-speed low-earth orbit satellite connectivity from Vocus Satellite – Starlink, the Australian-made drone acts as a mobile tower in the sky, providing connectivity across an area up to 28 square kilometres, while being able to fly for an indefinite period thanks to its ground-based power supply.

The heavy-lift drone can carry up to 15kg, hovering in the air with payloads that can include 4G/5G tower equipment, P25 two-way radio equipment and bright floodlights or cameras. This flexibility enables the drone to provide critical support to emergency services during rescue and recovery situations.

For example, should a person be lost in a rugged mountainous region with no reception, first responders, in collaboration with the person’s mobile carrier, could use the drone to establish a new coverage zone to make contact with the missing person. Likewise, the drone can serve as an airborne mobile tower in a natural disaster situation where mobile towers may have been disrupted or damaged.

Challenge Networks, the Vocus company that specialises in building private 4G/5G networks, designed the solution after observing how low-earth orbit satellite connectivity, ground based power, heavy lift drones and compact mobile network equipment could be brought together to solve a significant problem. The solution includes XM2’s Australian-designed XTD-120 Tether Drone, powered by an XM2 EON800 power system.

Emergency Services Organisations test the solution

Emergency Services Organisations recently had the opportunity to test the solution during a demonstration at a NSW Rural Fire Service base in Bimbimbie. The demonstration, led by the NSW Telco Authority's Next Generation Digital Connectivity initiative, allowed them to experience how the drone can provide critical communication services during natural disasters, especially where standard mobile networks have been disrupted.

“This is an example of how Vocus is using its strength in satellite technology, and Challenge Networks’ expertise in wireless and systems integration to deliver a brilliantly simple solution for a particularly Australian challenge,” said Ashley Neale, Development Manager Space and Satellite, Vocus.

Making the connection from the sky: how it’s done

  • The drone takes off from the ground carrying the equipment needed to establish mobile network coverage.
  • A high strength, lightweight tether cable supplies power and data from the ground station which enables the drone to remain airborne indefinitely with just brief landings for maintenance checks every 12 hours.
  • It can be used as a repeater for public mobile networks (with the cooperation of local carriers), or to establish a private and secure mobile network for use by emergency services personnel only.
  • It can also accommodate other radio equipment as well as bright floodlights and cameras.
  • The drone’s data feed is from Vocus Satellite – Starlink, providing low-earth orbit satellite connectivity, enabling clear, delay-free calls, and data speeds up to and beyond 100Mbps for connected devices.
  • The extent of the drone's mobile coverage is directly proportional to its altitude and transmitting power. In the NSW Telco demonstration, coverage of 28 square kilometres was achieved in dense bushland.
  • The drone is flown by a CASA accredited pilot, and can be operated remotely if permitted by CASA, enabling round-the-clock airborne operation.

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