Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird. It’s a plane. No, it’s Stratellite!

It hovers nearly 13-miles above the earth, looks like an updated version of the ill-fated Hindenburg, and, reportedly, can provide high-speed internet access, video and cell phone service to an area roughly the size of Texas. The creators call it a Stratellite—a cross between a satellite and a ridge-frame blimp or dirigibles.

The folks at Sanswire Networks LLC and GlobeTel Communications Corporation, who are behind the project, are quick to say it is, “not a blimp!” but an airship.

The difference is that a blimp is basically a gas-filled bag with a gondola attached to the underside. The Stratellite also has a gondola, but its frame is rigid—sort of an updated version of the airships or dirigibles that plied the skies in the early part of the 20th century. The German airship Hindenburg, which exploded spectacularly over Lakeshurst, New Jersey (“Oh, the humanity!”), was the most famous of those ships which carried passengers to and from the U.S. and Europe.

Instead of carrying passengers, these new ships will carry communications equipment that can provide broadband and cell phone service to tens of thousands of customers.

“A Stratellite is conceived as an autonomous communications and surveillance platform that will park at a specific location in the stratosphere approximately 13 miles up,” said Douglas Murch, a retired USAF Lieutenant Colonel, who is heading the project. “At this altitude, the Stratellite provides an extensive footprint of coverage, approximately 126,000 square miles, and brings immediate communication connectivity to areas that have no ground infrastructure.”

Old idea, new skin
Unlike the airships of old, the Stratellite is very light, using composites—instead of metal or aluminum—for the frame, and light-weight synthetic materials for the hull skin. It also utilizes gas containment bags instead of one giant chamber along with regenerative, or long-endurance non-regenerative, electric power versus gas or diesel fuel. It flies by remote controls without a pilot, and can stay aloft in a fixed position for up to 18 months.

The concept of an airship being used for communications may be novel, but it is not new. The idea was floated in the 1990s during the big ‘dot-com’ boom. At the time, it got a lot of attention, but little backing. The technology took a final nose-dive when DSL and cable-delivered broadband came on the scene and the “dot-com” bubble burst. Ultimately, it failed to get off the ground. This time around, the planners say the technology is much better and the time is right.

What makes it interesting for the ISP is that instead of carrying passengers, these modern airships will carry “telecommunications, broadcast and, if used by government or institutions, other assorted sensor and/or surveillance payloads, providing voice, data and video services to customers,” said Murch.

If that is not enough to get your attention, Murch claims they have “other certain technical features we do not wish to disclose at this time.”

While they are claiming a “potential” range of up to 126,000 square miles, Murch tempers this by adding that the “range for ground wireless devices varies with [each device’s] particular format and output power—and whether a CPE [customer premises equipment] or a repeater type device, if required, is used for direct communication with the Stratellite or if the device connects to a ground based network for uplink to the Stratellite for backhaul.”

All an ISP will need to connect to the Sanswire Network Stratellite is an uplink/downlink with repeater system. No other technical issues are anticipated, according to a company spokesperson. Prices for connecting to the Stratellite have not been set yet, but the company claims a “savings over most ground-based systems.”

Murch adds that based on recent studies, the airship would be one-tenth to one-twentieth the cost of a comparable ground-based system “even when you calculate the cost of construction and the cost of the ground stations and antennas.” Final costs and expenses will depend upon the population served and they type of services offered.

A plan, a plan, an airship
If the response for the airship telecommunications platform is as good as anticipated, Sanswire Networks plans to have 1,500 to 1,800 of these babies hovering over the landscape within the next 20 years. The total ‘projected market’ based on ‘current’ usage is said to be approximately 3,200 of them!

In case you are worried that we could have another Hindenburg disaster in the making with the Stratellite, Murch said there is not much chance of that, noting that the airship has segmented gas cells.

“Losing one gas cell will not have a dramatic impact on its buoyancy. Even if you lost all the gas cells at once, the parasitic drag from such a large, lightweight structure would result in a slow descent. Further, it is possible that an automated rocket deployed parachute system could be installed to further slow its descent rate if final calculations show it warrants it having one installed for such an unlikely emergency situation.”

Specialized markets
But don’t plan on being able to connect to one anytime soon. The first to get Stratelites will be areas where there is customer need and a lack of alternative systems. “Third world and developing countries is where the most intense interest is coming from for telecommunications,” Murch said.

Niche markets, such as rural areas where broadband is spotty or non-existent, and areas hit by natural disasters where terrestrial towers have failed or been destroyed are other potential markets. An example are the areas that were hit by Hurricane Katrina. Right after the disaster, satellite systems providing phone and data services jumped in popularity in Gulf Coast areas.

Murch added that the U.S. government has already indicated a “significant” interest in the technology. Presumably, the government is interested in using it for security and surveillance.

As for reliability, Murch claims that the core network should be as reliable as any other mode of communication. He noted that weather should not be an issue but that, on the ground, trees and buildings do affect some types of signals, just as they do for ground-based systems. However, “with the Stratellite, there is a more direct look up/down signal” since the signal has fewer obstacles, such as buildings or trees, in the way, providing a more direct line of sight and, in theory, a cleaner signal.

According to Sanswire Networks, initial lower altitude and ground-based long distance tests have been positive. While they have not yet conducted stratospheric tests, the company claims there are no foreseeable communications issues with regard to speed, responsiveness or latency.

Technology looking for a market?
It sounds great, but some believe the idea is little more than a ‘pie-in-the-sky’ dream that, like its predecessors, will come crashing back to earth. Detractors dismiss it as a technology looking for a market as they point out that the cost may not justify the limited audience.

It’s estimated that the cost of just one of these airships is in the range of $30 to $40 million. Considering that in order to attract any business, the cost to consumers must be competitive, there must be very significant demand in order to pay off the purchase price.

Additionally, they are not the only game in town. Late last year, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved Arizona-based Space Data Corporation‘s SkySite technology for use in air-to-ground (ATG) communications. The approval was part of the FCC’s decision to increase competition in the air-to-ground services market.

Their system uses balloon-born (similar to a weather balloon) communications equipment, known collectively as the SkySite Network, which operate in “near space” or over 20 miles above the earth. This past August, the U.S. Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) Space & Missile Systems Center’s Development and Test Wing at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, awarded a $49 Million contract to Space Data Corporation to provide a near space communications system.

There are also unanswered questions concerning the durability of dirigibles like the Stratellite. It’s an idea that has never been fully tested. The stratosphere is an inhospitable place above the jet stream where temperatures are usually around freezing. To date, no airship has ever stayed in the stratosphere for an extended period, so it’s anybody’s guess just how the environment will affect an airship that is stationed there for a year-and-a-half at a time.

Another problem is that in most places in the world, wireless is a proven technology in a market that is already saturated. Airship-based communications is relatively new and still unproven. The trick is going to be to attract sufficient venture capital to make the idea fly.

For now, it’s an intriguing idea that does seem to hold potential for certain markets.

Source: http://www.isp-planet.com/fixed_wireless/technology/2006/airship.html