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Deploying 5G Drones: Revolutionising Search and Rescue Missions

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In the United Kingdom, mobile coverage is nearly ubiquitous, with 4G networks covering 92% of the country’s landmass as of 2021. This expansive reach owes itself to projects like the public-private Shared Rural Network Scheme, forecasted to boost coverage up to 95% by 2025. Yet, 4% of the country’s land tends to fall outside these networks’ reach, usually pertaining to rural areas. These remote regions often become spots of distress, where people get lost, injured and seek assistance from search and rescue teams.

Addressing this issue is Virgin Media O2 (VMO2), which is now harnessing the power of drones to deliver 5G connectivity to rescuers in Warwickshire. Their novel approach sees a drone equipped with a petite mobile base station developed by the company’s 5G Technical Trials team. The drone employs low-Earth orbit satellites to power up the 5G base station that then blankets the surrounding area with mobile connectivity.

Due to its versatile nature, the drone can swiftly be deployed in areas demanding connectivity. This feature enables rescue teams to access vital real-time data, amplifying their effectiveness in tackling life-threatening situations.

David Owens, Head of Technical Trials at Virgin Media O2 stated, “This project is a further example of how fresh-thinking and 5G technologies can be combined to provide real societal benefits. The solution has the potential to transform how search and rescue teams operate and respond to life-threatening situations, enabling them to make faster and more decisive decisions.”

The Warwickshire Search and Rescue team frequently assists local law enforcement in finding missing persons. They responded to 65 calls in 2022, a sharp 45% increase from 2020, and the number has remained consistent in 2023. This new connectivity solution from VMO2 could significantly improve their operational efficiency and speed.

Councillor Andy Crump, Portfolio Holder for Fire & Rescue and Community Safety at Warwickshire County Council, applauded the initiative. He stated, “This new solution from Virgin Media O2 will help the team on these missions and ultimately save many lives. It is further evidence of the positive impact improved connectivity can have upon our society.”

VMO2 continues to push the envelope with a series of drone projects. Interestingly, this approach to emergency connectivity using drone-mounted base stations is gaining traction globally. In rural markets where connectivity infrastructure can be insufficient, such solutions prove to be particularly beneficial. In Australia, for example, Vocus is testing a similar, albeit more robust, drone solution, proving that drones and connectivity technologies are indeed a promising combination for future telecoms infrastructure.

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