US Company Builds Large High-Flying Balloon to Fill Communications Niche
By Mike O'Sullivan
06 September 2006
Engineers in the California desert are testing a new communications
platform that blends modern electronics with old technology. Developers
say a helium-filled balloon carrying high-tech equipment can be a
cheaper alternative to satellites. The device called a Stratellite could
provide communication links to inaccessible places.
The prototype of the robotic airship is being assembled in a huge hangar
where the B-1 bomber was built, and where engineers once worked on the
experimental X-33 spacecraft.
Bob Jones of the company Sanswire Networks says the balloon will hover
in the stratosphere at a height of nearly 20,000 meters. From there, it
will provide video, voice and data communication to an area the size of
The Stratellite will offer links for cell phones and television
receivers, in what he calls the last-mile solution.
"The last-mile solution - it means that people that live up in the
mountains or out in the country where there's no infrastructure, well,
this is the answer," said Bob Jones.
He says a network of Stratellites could offer computer users Internet
"For example, if I'm in the middle of the Mojave Desert, I could open up
my laptop and I could communicate," he said.
Jones envisions hundreds of the airships hovering high above the United
States to augment, but not replace, existing satellite and ground
"We would like to see a lot of these things flying and providing the
needed communications," noted Bob Jones.
The Stratellite is a rigid airship, unlike a blimp, which has no
supporting structure. The new ship is more like the Zeppelins of the
1920s and '30s.
The prototype is a little smaller than an advertising blimp, at 37
meters stem to stern. Made with modern materials such as carbon
composites, it is incredibly light, weighing only 340 kilograms. The
prototype is one-fifth the size of the final version.
Bob Jones with the Stratellite fin
Bob Jones with the Stratellite fin
Jones shows a visitor the components being crafted in the hangar.
"Yeah, these are the fins," he points out. "They are very light. This is
carbon/carbon right here. This is a foam core. And you have got carbon
with foam sandwiched. So what we are doing is, for the structure - this
is the main structure here - we want to make sure that this does not fail."
The Stratellite is intended to stay aloft for 18 months, before
operators on the ground return it for servicing.
The airship will undergo testing in coming days. Its technology is
unproven, and even if it works, there is tough competition in a crowded
industry. But Jones believes the new device will fill a niche in the
communications market, and will also have other uses.
"It is amazing looking at the potential of this vehicle, not only the
use of the communication but for homeland security, utilizing something
like this to fly the coastal area, the border between Canada and the
U.S., and down in Mexico and the U.S., and being able to detect people
going across," continued Bob Jones.
He says the balloon could be used for search-and-rescue operations and
in natural disasters.
Jones says the South American nations of Colombia and Peru and the US
military have shown interest in the project.
Sanswire is not the only company looking for new uses of old
technologies. Next door, a company founded by Russian immigrants is
making advertising blimps, and developing a new hybrid airplane-airship
to carry tourists and cargo.
And just down the highway, in the desert town of Mojave, aerospace
visionary Burt Rutan is working on a craft to carry tourists into space.
In 2004, he launched the world's first private spaceship, called
SpaceShipOne, from Mojave Airport.
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