Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Stratellites are Starting to Fly

The first Sanswire Stratellite lifted off the ground this month, symbolically launching the new age of airships. Only this time the airships are automated communications platforms, as I wrote in "Your Next ISP is a Blimp."

Like the great airships of the 1930s, the Stratellites are whales of the sky. The prototype "Sanswire One" is 188 feet long and shaped like a double-wide dirigible. It is a dirigible. The skeleton is a thin frame of high strength aluminum. The skin is a light colored Dupont Tedlar, a polyvinyl fluoride film that clings tightly to protect the innards of the craft. Inside are helium lift cells and the communications gear that makes the Stratellite a wireless repeater for broadband Internet, including VoIP, and perhaps cellular telephone and video transmission.

This first lifting test of the Stratellite is part of the engineering program that will lead to production models that will be 450 to 800 feet in length and carry several thousand pounds of microwave transceivers. They'll be powered by an array of thin flexible solar cells that cover the top of the ship and generate 10 KW of power. Unlike the passenger carrying dirigibles, Stratellites are autonomous robotic vehicles that climb to an altitude of 65,000 feet and hover over a fixed point above the weather and aircraft lanes. A GPS navigation system directs a cluster of electric ducted fan thrusters to keep each airship at its designated station.

So why a technology from the early days of flight when we're in the satellite era? Satellites turn out to be very expensive to build and launch and are basically throw-away items. LEO or low earth orbit constellations need dozens or hundreds of satellites because they are constantly moving in their orbits. Geosynchronous satellites are so far away from Earth that the latency due to the speed of light makes them generally unsuited to two-way voice communications. But park a reusable airship in the stratosphere just 13 miles up and you have a communications platform that can cover a 200 mile radius in all directions. It's estimated that 300 Stratellites, built and launched at a cost of about a tenth the cost of satellites, could easily provide blanket broadband coverage to the entire United States.

But broadband is only the initial justification for a Stratellite fleet. The same vehicles can be used as cellular towers in the sky to cover remote areas, dead zones and perhaps even cities that are just tired of so many steel towers popping up. They'll also be ideal for wide area paging and text messaging.

The next step is a flight test that is now going through the approval process with the FAA and Air Force so that Stratellite One can lift off from Palmdale, California and be tested at Edwards Air Force Base nearby. Hopefully that will happen sometime this summer. Following a successful flight test program, production will begin early in 2006 ramping up to 300 vehicles per year by 2007.

In addition to U.S. based telecom services, Stratellites have a built-in demand worldwide. GlobeTel, the parent company of Sanswire Networks LLC, is reported to have an agreement to provide Stratellites for broadband, VoIP and video to South America, starting with Lima, Peru. They'd also be perfect for the huge landmass of Asia and the extensive island archipelago of Indonesia.

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