Crowded skies with balloons that watch over all of us!

BY Angelo Fernando

Between satellites and drones, there is a wide business gap that’s being filled by balloons. Satellites served as the earliest eyes in the sky – a race that began when Sputnik was launched by the then Soviet Union in 1957.

Needless to say, satellites – which are large and expensive – belong to an industry dominated by aerospace giants. For instance, Boeing has been around for more than a century and besides its airline business, it produces communications satellites under lucrative government contracts.

Similar to Globalstar and Boeing’s Iridium, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin have also competed for major communications satellite systems. But now, newcomers such as SpaceX and Blue Origin have entered the game, with Facebook and Virgin in hot pursuit. It’s suddenly getting crowded in the space industry – and in space.

One agency that keeps track of such identifiable flying objects puts the number at 4,897 with approximately 300-400 satellites being launched every year.

And into this airspace came drones. Drones open up many opportunities since they are more nimble and their price points are attractive. How-ever, they pose many challenges because they’re hard to account for since government agencies, private companies and hobbyists own drones.

In the US, there are 1.3 million registered drones and this includes those owned by more than 116,000 registered drone operators. Then there are surveillance drones operated by a slew of federal, state and local agencies, as well as police departments. A surveillance drone comes in many sizes – and on the small end of the scale is what’s known as ‘nano unmanned aerial vehicles’ that have a wingspan of about 15 centimetres.

The large drones could be as big as a small aircraft. Boeing manufactures a drone that’s about 5.5 metres wide and can fly at 112 kmph. It’s basically a pilotless plane. There are plenty of niches for satellites and drones, from surveillance and mapping to communications. Facebook is experimenting with solar powered drones that could provide worldwide internet access.

But this airspace is about to get more crowded because the balloon industry is ready to take off. The world first took note of stratospheric balloons because of Google’s Project Loon, which began in 2013 with the aim of beaming down the internet to remote regions in the world. The initial idea was for mapping and surveillance.

A stratospheric balloon could expand to the size of a football field – the stratosphere is about 18,000 metres above Earth.

The US Department of Defence (specifically DARPA) is also testing balloons. According to MIT Technology Review, “it is currently testing a wind sensor that could allow its balloon programme to spot wind speed and direction from a great distance, and then make the necessary adjustments to stay in one spot.” In other words, it won’t drift away in unpredictable weather conditions.

The purpose of this is benign surveillance to assist ground operations after disasters or monitor air quality in an area that’s impacted by a disaster or catastrophic event.

In a remote area of Tucson, Arizona, a company called World View Enterprises is testing what it calls ‘Stratollites.’ These are basically high-altitude balloons, which they say can remain aloft for weeks or even months, and be able to measure and monitor. Stratollite is short for ‘stratospheric satellite.’

The company says that its vehicles will carry commercial payloads with an array of sensors, telescopes and communications equipment, and can be launched on demand. They can then safely and gently return the payloads to Earth. The businesses that could benefit from them would be those interested in mapping, networking, radar and of course, human surveillance.

While its work is not well-known since it doesn’t generate the kind of media hype that SpaceX or Amazon does, its balloons have been flying to the ‘edge of space.’ World View Enterprises has clients in ‘government,’ and the ‘commercial and education sectors.’

This vague description may or may not involve surveillance and mapping. Its CEO Jane Poynter once said that stratollites are versatile, and could serve needs such as first responder support during natural disasters by connecting teams on the ground and providing an eye in the sky.

All this makes for much speculation about whose satellite might be the first to prove its value. After that, the real space race will be on. The new players may be taking the lead but the old guard with decades of aviation and space experience shouldn’t be dismissed.

With so many balloons, drones, rockets, satellites and planes, our skies will become a lot more crowded.

In the US, there are 1.3 million registered drones and this includes those owned by more than 116,000 registered drone operators