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Giant Balloons Used for Communications and Research, Business and Industry Trends Analysis

Google has backed an internal program, called Project Loon, that is studying the use of 49-foot tall helium balloons positioned high in the atmosphere in strategic locations to beam internet access to remote areas.  Such balloons are capable of acting as flying base stations that communicate directly with mobile devices on the ground.  Recent tests of Loon balloons found them capable of staying airborne for up to six months.  (Meanwhile, Google pulled the plug on a project attempting to develop solar-powered drones that would circle at very high altitude and beam internet access to the ground.  Costs were considered to be too high.)

World View Enterprises ( ), a cutting-edge high-altitude balloon company based in Tucson, Arizona, made headlines when it worked with KFC on an ad campaign to fly a Zinger-brand chicken sandwich via balloon equipped with a video camera.  The balloon reached a height of 67,143 feet where it hovered for 17 hours, beaming images of the sandwich to earth.  The stunt netted World View a hefty advertising fee and garnered international attention.  The firm has since raised more than $42 million from venture capitalists.

World View’s balloons are called Stratollites, are solar powered and completely autonomous.  They can haul cargo up to 20,000 pounds in weight, up to 19 miles into the stratosphere, and remain virtually stationary for months.  The crafts move back and forth in a figure-eight pattern in the newly-discovered crisscross wind pattern of the stratosphere.  This ability affords a cheaper and more precise alternative to using drones or satellites for long-term aerial photography.  In addition, Stratollites can make complex measurements, provide communications services and internet or phone access to remote areas.  There are also applications relating to weather measurement and prediction.

World View so far has flown mainly for the U.S. government, but the company plans to increase flying for commercial clients.  The firm also plans to offer Voyager, a gondola attached to a balloon that gently ascends to about 100,000 feet, where passengers may enjoy views of the Earth and the stratosphere in comfort, complete with a bar and bathroom.  After about two hours, Voyager descends back to Earth via a steerable parachute.  The cost per passenger will likely be about $75,000, and World View hopes to begin service within the next few years.



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