In July 2023, the UK Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology, Chloe Smith, announced GBP 20 million in funding from the UK Space Agency to support the development of future telecommunications technologies and aerial connectivity projects, motivated by their potential uses in various industries. This investment will cover drones (UAS), high-altitude platform systems (HAPS), and high-altitude long endurance (HALE). Overall, the announcement highlights the potential of these technologies to improve connectivity in remote rural areas and aid disaster management.
Because HAPS are placed close to the ground, they allow for a stronger signal and lower latency. Additionally, their deployment can be less challenging than other solutions. As a result, HAPS are ideal for supporting real-time communication, such as video calls or remote control machinery. Given these particularities, HAPS can form part of several solutions and business models, such as closing the gap in rural areas where terrestrial services cannot reach 5G connectivity, monitoring and tracking resources (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR)), complementing Earth observation efforts with remote sensing and imagery, and assisting in disaster management and near-space testing. However, while the technology and potential use cases are clear, the current regulatory path is not.
HAPS are greatly increasing their features and evolving and expanding their potential uses. One big challenge to this market is the lack of an adequate regulatory framework. Advancements towards the adoption of a clear framework have been made from the spectrum allocation perspective, and new decisions are under review as part of the upcoming WRC-23.
Companies developing HAPS are also facing market access issues in most countries. While governments and ministries welcome new actors into their markets, licensing requirements are not clear and authorities are not prepared to grant the required authorisations, mostly due to the lack of rules or examples they can follow.
Only a handful of countries, such as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and the United States, hold a designated process for the licensing and operations of HAPS. In this context, KSA conducted the world’s first 5G test using HAPS in 2022. In March 2023, it was announced that an MoU was signed regarding the introduction of HAPS-based solutions, with operations expected to start by the end of 2024. Meanwhile, within the EU, only the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has taken steps to set the technical and regulatory foundation of HAPS in airspace activities. No other similar initiatives from jurisdictions or organisations have been recorded.
HAPS are defined in the International Telecommunication Union’s (ITU) Radio Regulations as “radio stations located on an object at an altitude of 20-50 kilometres and at a specified, fixed point relative to Earth”. In other words, these platforms are placed in the stratosphere, higher than drones and lower than satellites. This definition challenges traditional understanding of telecommunication services, usually provided at ground level or from space, and might induce potential investors to be stuck in a regulatory grey area, preventing swift market access. While technically and commercially ready to be deployed, this impediment keeps them at bay.
The primary rules that exist to regulate HAPS have already proven to be insufficient. Considering their applications, HAPS can be complementary to other telecommunication solutions, sitting higher than drones and lower than satellites. This means that authorisation or conditions to operate may overlap between telecommunication authorities, by respective civil aviation authorities, or by municipalities or local councils, within the purposes of air traffic management. The uncertainty in the field would likely be discouraging for HAPS manufacturers and providers, as well as their potential business models. Therefore, governments must take the initiative to define clear rules.
In this context, authorities do not have a clear definition of who should be regulating their operations and we can see efforts and initiatives from the aviation and the space sectors running in parallel. For example, in March 2023, EASA published a Proposal for a Roadmap for Higher Airspace (HA) Operations. This proposal targets HA operations performed by several different types of manned or unmanned vehicles with various flight profiles, such as balloons, airships, supersonic and hypersonic aircraft, and suborbital vehicles. It underlines the close interaction between space and air traffic during the launch and re-entry phases of space flights and serves as a call for a universal coordinated approach.
EASA’s proposed action plan consists of two phases. The first includes (i) supporting industrial developments; (ii) building the regulator’s know-how and raising awareness among the EU Member States; (iii) conducting scientific studies to gather more data; (iv) conducting similar research on regulatory and legal assessments; (v) designing synergies with other EU policies; and (vi) seeking regional and global interoperability through coordination with international organisations and harmonisation. Following this, the second phase involves more active steps, such as regulatory amendments, training, and guidance material.
This effort could be a forerunner of upcoming focused policies and standards on HAPS and other systems that will be placed on the stratosphere. Governments and organisations should advance these discussions to enable the development of the market by adopting the best regulatory solution.
However, it should be highlighted that detailed, suffocating regulations are not the best option either. Thus, a balance needs to be struck between ensuring adequate development and not stifling innovation. Potential solutions and practices could include:
- Establishing national and international registries for HAPS, with coordination from all implicated authorities to define simple and streamline procedures, with seamless incorporation of HAPS and such systems into national airspace operations.
- Advancing the adoption of technologically neutral telecommunication licensing frameworks to accommodate existing and future technologies.
- Adopting the ITU’s decisions regarding allocation of spectrum for HAPS at the domestic level, as well as simplifying spectrum licensing for testing purposes when required.
Coordination between aviation (ICAO, EASA, etc.) and space (ITU, UNOOSA, ESPI, etc.) organisations for the drafting of ground rules and guidance is long overdue. This will be vital for this business to be introduced to the market and flourish within it. The legal gap must be covered.
HAPS hold the capability of connecting the last mile. Enabling their operation is critical for meeting the objective imposed on each national authority to close the digital divide and achieve universal Internet access.
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