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Telecommunication

SoftBank's drones keep mobile network alive in disaster-hit Japan

The devices will restore downed mobile networks in an hour

SoftBank aims to install "drone base stations" across Japan. (Photo courtesy of SoftBank)

TOKYO -- Japanese telecom SoftBank Corp. will deploy drones that serve as base stations for mobile phones, in a move to help restore vital communications quickly when a natural disaster damages base stations on land.

SoftBank plans to deploy more than 10 drones at its nationwide locations by next spring. The equipment will allow phone calls of up to 2,000 people simultaneously within a 10 kilometer radius. The aims to bring back a downed network in about an hour using the drone base stations.

The devices, measuring 1.5 meters in diameter, are developed in-house and fly 100 to 150 meters above the ground. They are able to relay communication between satellites or distant base stations and consumers' smartphones.

SoftBank's latest effort is an example of how Japanese companies are preparing to cope with emergencies in a country known for frequent natural disasters. Large-scale earthquakes and typhoons can cripple base stations, causing long-term blackouts and cutting off communication that can be crucial for saving lives.

In the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami, base stations controlled by all three of Japan's major mobile phone companies along the Tohoku coast were severely damaged. It took one month to restore them.

The drones can function under winds as strong as 15 meters per second (54kph). They can operate continuously for a week if it is connected to a generator on the ground by wire.

In cooperation with the Fire and Disaster Management Agency, SoftBank also plans to use the system to rescue victims in snowy mountains and other areas with poor reception. The company plans to urge NTT Docomo and KDDI, its rivals, to cooperate in rescue operations on snowy mountains.

The company began researching related technologies in 2016 and has developed techniques for remote control. The company also introduced an emergency balloon system in 2013, but it takes half a day to set up the facility due to procedures including gas-filling. Two vehicles are also required to carry the related equipment.

In the U.S., AT&T has used drones for emergency communications in times of disaster. But most similar projects in other countries are still in the pilot stage.

Deregulation is enabling SoftBank to introduce drones. In June, the examination standards of the Radio Act were revised so that drones equipped with communication functions can be used in major emergencies.

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