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 Texas.
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 access anywhere.
"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 communications.
"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.
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.