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Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL

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pie-in-the-sky or the future of wireless networks?

  • On January 31, 2006

Why put up costly cell-phone towers in thinly populated areas, when a few balloons would do? In North Dakota, former Gov. Ed Schafer is backing a plan to loft wireless network repeaters on balloons high above the state to fill gaps in cellular coverage. “I know it sounds crazy,” said Schafer, who now heads Extend America, a wireless telecommunications company. “But it works in the lab.”

The company behind this system, Space Data, has launched thousands of the free-floating balloons in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas and New Mexico over the past year. The wireless data network they encompass tracks oil company vehicles and monitors the production of oil wells and pipelines,

“To cover every square mile of North Dakota, it would take 1,100 cell towers,” Schafer said. “We can do the whole state with three balloons.”

If successful, the hydrogen-filled balloons could be drifting across the stratosphere above North Dakota this summer, providing cellular coverage at a tiny fraction of the cost of building cellular towers. Up to 20 miles above the earth, well above commercial airliner pathways, steady stratospheric winds would push the latex balloons across the state at about 30 mph. Each balloon would deliver voice and data service to an area hundreds of miles in diameter.

“Nine balloons would always be in the air, with some going up, some going down, and some in the middle,” Schafer said.

The balloons swell from six feet in diameter to 30 feet after they gain altitude. Once a balloon leaves the state, its toaster-size communications pod would jettison, deploy a parachute and fall to earth, where it would signal its position.

via Wired


  1. David Johnson

    Interesting idea, but I think it would take too much maintenance to be worth it in the long run. Having some sort of fixed infrastructure with a dynamic network rather than a dynamic infrastructure and a fixed network seems more logical to me.

    I see the future of wireless networks in multiple, many and cheap solar-powered wireless mesh nodes spread out on the ground.

  2. geoff

    how about an automated blimp with flexi solar cell accross the entire area of its balloon surface, allowing it to stay aloft for many many days and over the same region? I just dont think it wolud be practical to have loads of teams running around looking for balloons that drop from the sky at random places. Could the airliners all not have transmitters on? they are only at 30000ft, but there are alot of them up there all the time?

  3. “I just dont think it wolud be practical to have loads of teams running around looking for balloons that drop from the sky at random places” – This already happens all round the world with weather balloons. Its true though that this would be a dramatic scale up.

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