Columbia River SkyNet

This paper describes a broadband wireless network based on aerial platforms to deliver broadband internet throughout the Columbia River skyway. It requires NO terrestial towers.

Sprint’s HAPSMobile has established an innovative wireless platform, now being tested in Hawaii. It uses a solar-powered ultralight drone orbiting at 12 miles. Sprint’s high altitude broadband platform enables ordinary 4G/5G broadband service everywhere in its footprint. It also enables innovative, cost/effective new tools for governments and private agencies including low altitude UAVs and autonomous marine vessels.

– The goal is to provide persistent vision, day and night, for all marine vessels on the Columbia River and enable the development of autonomous boats and Beyond Visual Line of Sight surveillance drones.
– A secondary goal is to provide BLANKET IoT services and consumer broadband ALL along the Columbia River, from Umatilla to Astoria.
– Emergency broadband communications is an additional motivation.

Predator drones currently cost $17 million and cost $12,255 per flight hour to operate. Autonomous, solar-powered drones at 65,000 feet, by contrast, don’t have to land every 8 hours, don’t require an active pilot, and aim to provide broadband cheaper than fixed cellular towers.

LEO satellites, like those planned by OneWeb and SpaceX, CANNOT link directly to phones. LEO satellites require large mobile antennas.

The HAPSMoble UAV platform is essentially a high cell tower. It connects to ordinary cellphones using ordinary cellular frequencies. It also enables small autonomous water vessels and autonomous vehicles, as well as Beyond Line of Site UAVs and a multitude of IoT devices. Standard 4G/5G service all along the Columbia River.

NOTE: This paper is an informational overview. Whether high-altitude broadband platforms would be useful and cost/effective for Oregon and Washington stakeholders – or even a good idea given the surveillence capability – is beyond the scope of this paper.

The Columbia River broadband communications cloud might enable a new era of cost/effective river patrol and transportation, enabling autonomous marine vessels, among other things.

Sprint’s HAPSMobile, using an AeroVironment HAWK30 solar-powered platform, is essentially a cell tower in the sky, 12 miles (20km) high. It delivers cellular service over a 200km (125 mile) diameter area.

One HAWK50 orbiting over Longview could cover Astoria to Portland and would be based at the UAS facility in Tillamook. A second HAWK50, orbiting over The Dalles (60 miles up river) would cover Portland to Umatilla region and would be based at the UAS facility in Pendleton.

The high altitude Sprint/Aerovironment platform (pdf) is positioned at 65,000 feet (12 miles), delivering cellular service at 1.9 GHz and 2.5 GHz. The Sprint platform is currently being tested at the Pan Pacific UAS Test Range. The solar-powered platforms remain in orbit for months at a time and can deliver seamless broadband coverage, unlike terrestrial towers.

Facebook joined the SoftBank/Sprint program as part of a collaboration between the two companies. Facebook will utilize the 26GHz and 38GHz spectrum (mostly for tower backhaul), but Sprint will use their 2.5 GHz cellular spectrum for direct phone connections. HAPSMobile also has a strategic relationship with Loon, a subsidiary of Alphabet.

Sprint/Softbank hopes to start commercial service in 2023. However, a different drone, the HAWK50, would be required for service at higher latitudes, between 30-50 degrees, where we are located.


The States of Oregon and Hawaii are original partners with Alaska in the Pan-Pacific UAS Test Range Complex (PPUTRC).


The Mississippi Partnership, a recent addition to the Pan Pacific Complex, includes the National Guard’s Camp Shelby Training Center, the Air National Guard’s Gulfport Training Center, NASA’s Stennis Space Center, as well as the Jackson County and Hancock County Port Authorities. The Mississippi Facility will utilize approximately 2,000 square miles of restricted airspace, primarily in southern and coastal Mississippi, supporting disaster relief (flood, fire and earthquake), highway and rail accidents, border protection, and containment of hazardous materials spills. Mississippi is home to three UAS manufacturers, Aurora Flight Sciences, Northrop Grumman and Stark Aerospace.

Oregon has the ONLY west coast drone test bed in the United States and it includes three different UAS test ranges:

(1) The Pendleton Unmanned Aerial Systems Range, managed by the Alaska-based Pan-Pacific UAS Test Range. The Pendleton airport provides a dedicated 2,800-foot UAS airstrip and a full-service UAS operating area extends over 14,000 square miles: North to the Columbia River; east over the Blue Mountains and Umatilla National Forest. A large UAS industrial park north of the Pendleton airport’s runways is being constructed.

OPB’s Tom Banse reports on the current progress on Pendleton’s Vahana air taxi, built by Airbus. Boeing’s Aurora Flight Sciences and China’s Ehang have also demonstrated air taxis. Google’s Kittyhawk claims their 3rd generation “Heaviside” aircraft will emit 1/100th the noise of traditional helicopters.

2. The Northwest UAV Flight, Analysis, & System Test Range (pdf), just south of Portland in McMinnville, is a flight test range under the Pan-Pacific UAS Complex. The range facilitates flights up to 4,000 feet in a 5 nautical mile radius of airspace (below).

(3) The Tillamook UAS Test Range, managed by NearSpace, Inc. Near Space Corporation has over 20 years of experience conducting flight tests of space and unmanned technologies within the National Airspace System, and operates both the Johnson Near Space Center and the Tillamook UAS Test Range.

(4) The Warm Springs FAA UAS Test Range, managed by VDOS, Inc. on behalf of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs.

Current customers of the Pendleton Unmanned Aerial Systems Range include Airbus, which is testing their autonomous air taxi Vahana, defense contractor PAE ISR with their Resolute Eagle, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory flying their Artic Shark, San Diego-based defense and transportation contractor Cubic Corp with Command and Control products on wildfire drones, and Yamaha’s remotely guided crop-dusting helicopter, the RMAX.

Oregon State University, a longtime partner of UAF on research activities, is also part of the Oregon test site team. Boeing’s Insitu, the drone pioneer based near Hood River, has been flying their Scan Eagle and RQ-21 Blackjack around the Gorge and eastern Oregon for nearly a decade. If drones are the “eyes”, the PNNL High-Performance Computing Collabratory could be the “brains”.

The city of Pendleton is expected to receive a $3 million federal grant for the range’s final phase, a large UAS industrial park north of the Pendleton airport’s runways. This will attract more high profile UAS business to the region.

Non-line of sight developments may expand the range and impact into protected airspace such as the Columbia River Corridor.

Operations in Hawaii are quickly developing, including a UAS test facility on Lanai (where Sprint is testing its’ HAPs Mobile platform). Oregon State is a member of the Pan-Pacific Unmanned Aerial Systems Test Range Complex. As with OSU, the University of Hawaii has a long-standing academic partnership with Hawaii’s UAS test facility.

One of the main goals of drone testing at the Pendleton Airport is to test the integration of drones into the National Airspace System (NAS).

The Air National Guard at the Pendleton Airport currently flies the Group 3 RQ-7 Shadow drone. The DOD plans to replace this model with something similar to the PAE Resolute Eagle, also being tested in Pendleton.

The PAE Resolution Eagle doesn’t need a catapult, like the RQ-7 Shadow, or a large net to catch it returning from a mission. PAE expects to conduct operations in the National Airspace in 2020, integrated with civilian aircraft.

Vantis is North Dakota’s BVLOS highway, the first of its kind in the nation (PDF). Their Beyond Visual Line Of Sight system, which uses cell towers, may be model for the nation, much like the interstate system. The Network can be used for package delivery, utility inspections, search and rescue, agriculture, and medical deliveries. North Dakota has lots of wind farms, as does Eastern Oregon.

What was once confined to a 40-miles-on-a-side triangle can now span an entire state using cell towers.

Oregon Iron Works has delivered multiple unmanned surface vessels and is often responsible for concept through the detail design.

The Vigor/Oregon Iron Works Mine Countermeasures Unmanned Surface Vehicle (MCM USV) is a long endurance, semi-autonomous, diesel-powered, all-aluminum surface craft that supports various MCM payloads. Oregon Iron Works is developing autonomous seaplanes for EO/ISR and communications relay missions like the Sea Scout air vehicle.

An autonomous Saildrone recently circumnavigated around Antartica. The Saildrone sensor payload consists of science-grade instruments.

PMEL provides autonomous vessel instrumentation for Solar Sail Drones and other craft.

Bluefin Robotics uses low-bandwidth communications, with Iridium for remote connections, radio for local links and acoustic communications underwater.

Enabling drones to fly in controlled airspace may be the next frontier. ADS–B boxes use GPS to determine an airplane’s position, broadcasting it to other aircraft. ADS-B will be mandated for all aircraft starting in 2020 and is available in the size of a business card today. A 12 mile high cell tower can also relay video from low altitude drones – well beyond line of sight – for improved situational awareness.

Currently, collision avoidance for drones requires a number of terrestrial radars along the drone track. Echodyne radar on UAVs can detect and avoid other aircraft while in flight while Echodyne ground-based radars scan the skies for aircraft entering their operating area.

The University of Alaska’s Unmanned Aircraft Program conducted the first ever beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) drone operation. It was powered by Iris Automation’s on-board system and Echodyne’s ground-based, detect-and-avoid system integrated onto a small Skyfront Perimeter UAV.

There’s no guarantee of success. It’s no secret AeroVironment’s Helios failed in a spectacular crash, near Kauai in 2003. A second drone, the Global Observer, crashed in 2011 at Edwards Airforce Base.

Boeing subsidiary Aurora Flight Sciences has a similar looking aircraft called Odysseus , while Airbus is building its own High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) internet drone, Zephyr, now being tested in Western Australia.

Insitu has successfully demonstrated a ground-based airspace situational awareness system for drones. It detects nearby aircraft while flying, either within or beyond visual line of sight. “We’re developing our ability to fly long distances with our UASs that satisfies the airspace regulators, providing UAS operators with access to information that we previously just couldn’t obtain otherwise,” said Mark Bauman, Vice President and General Manager, Insitu Commercial.

Predator drones, in partnership with the FAA, NASA, and industry partners, are also helping to define airspace regulations for Anti-Collision Systems that will allow further integration of drones into civilian airspace.

Iris Automation is an emerging player in the big-stakes game to commercialize Beyond Visual Line Of Site technology (BVLOS). In order to operate under BVLOS rules, an air carrier would need to obtain a BVLOS exemption under Part 135. This can be an even more stringent set of standards compared to Part 107.

Line of sight communications links are required between drones and controllers but that limits their range. Persistent Systems uses their MPU5 Wave Relay mobile ad hoc networking (MANET). Their platform agnostic radio can operate not just from Resolute Eagle drones, but from multiple drones, ground robots, and in systems carried by people on foot. By contrast, Silvus Technologies creates a high-throughput IP network connecting situational awareness resources including drones, body-worn cameras, smart devices, and IP-enabled sensors.

Wide Area Surveillance packages are being tested on Insitu’s Integrator aircraft in Eastern Oregon for 24/7 “Eye in the Sky” surveillance that may revolutionize policing – for better AND for worse.

The Redkite package consists of a 50-megapixel sensor that snaps an image every other second. It can monitor a nearly 5 by 5 square mile area from 12,000 feet. Redkite stores the collected imagery on solid state drives and also beams it to ground stations via data link such as Sprint’s HAPSMobile.

Spooked by surveillance technology? Nearly every street corner, office and store has cameras pointed at you. BlueLine’s facial biometrics is used in stores such as Jackson’s in Portland. The Washington County Sheriff’s Office was the first law-enforcement agency in the country to use Amazon’s artificial-intelligence tool Rekognition. While aerial drones aren’t likely to use facial recognition, they CAN track cars and people. Pre-crime.

Soon street cameras could be using Automated License Plate Recognition. You can thank OpenCV for that. Drones probably won’t be able to resolve faces or license plates from a mile away, but they CAN track 1000s of moving objects simultaneously. Drones KNOW when a person or thing under surveillance (essentially everything) will pass by a street-level camera that CAN utilize ALPR or face recognition.

Presumably, wholesale cell phone tracking could be implemented using sky-based Stingray devices, just as it’s done today on the battlefield. Every mobile phone has a unique International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) number, which the StingRay uses to track a phone. It’s a unique account number (assigned) to your mobile account (and stored in the SIM). IMEI is your unique phone serial number (unchangeable) for the mobile device.

Clearly, surveillance technology is controversial. Drones over the Columbia river might provide some standoff distance and provide significant safety and economic advantages, but it would bring lots of policy issues with it.

Technology happens. Autonomous cars, autonomous vessels, autonomous airplanes. Earthquake resilience. Broadband everywhere. Spies in the sky. Where is it going? Who knows. Let’s dip our toes in the water. Try something. Apply for some grants. Get it out there. Some applications will be useful and worthwhile. Some not. Let’s keep the conversation open.