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UK mobile carrier unveils mini-blimps for providing emergency cell coverage

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A miniature blimp (or “heliokite”) with a drone hovering in the background.

British mobile carrier EE has unveiled plans to use a fleet of drones and miniature blimps to supply cell phone coverage to rural areas of the UK. The company says its “air mast” network could be used in the wake of natural disasters as well as during events like soccer matches, where crowds congest mobile networks. The company, which is owned by BT, expects to deploy the technology in the field for the first time this year.

Like Facebook’s drones and Google’s balloons, the basic idea is to use airborne craft to beam signal down to users below. The blimps and drones are equipped with miniature mobile sites, including a basestation and antenna, and supply LTE coverage (or 4G, as it’s known in the UK). The blimps hover at a height of roughly 150 feet and can cover an area 4 kilometers wide. The drones are a more temporary measure, and can provide coverage over an area 2 kilometers wide for a few hours at a time.

In a press statement, EE CEO Marc Allera said technology like this would “revolutionize the way people connect.” “We're developing the concept of 'coverage on demand',” says Allera. “What if an event organizer could request a temporary EE capacity increase in a rural area, or a climber going up Ben Nevis could order an EE aerial coverage solution to follow them as they climb?”

More prosaically, though, these blimps and drones provide a PR-friendly face for EE’s management of the UK’s Emergency Services Network or ESN. This is a comms network dedicated to emergency services. For this, though, EE won’t be using its drones or blimps, but a fleet of 32 “rapid response vehicles” — Mitsubishi trucks retrofitted with 11-foot mobile masts. In an emergency situation, or when networks are down due to maintenance, these trucks will be deployed to ensure that the police, fire service, and ambulances never lose signal.