One of the reasons why mobile phone technology is so appealing to the leapfrog nations is that it's far less expensive and time-consuming to erect cellular towers than it is to pull miles of copper or fiber optic wire. But what if there was a solution that would be even cheaper and faster? Arizona-based Space Data and North Dakota's Extend America have developed a system using inexpensive balloons with cellular routers to provide wide-area coverage of sparsely-populated areas. North Dakota is set to be the test site for the system, which will use three balloons to provide coverage equivalent to 1,100 cellular towers. The balloons, once launched, would rise to a height of 20 miles, well above flight paths and transient weather conditions.
This isn't the first lighter-than-air communications network idea we've posted about; the Stratellite concept uses an airship to provide WiFi access across a wide area. What makes the SkySite concept different is that it uses cheap, disposable weather balloons as a platform, relying on a constant flow of launches and retrievals (the cellular hardware drops off and parachutes down after the maximum range is passed, and the balloon bursts at higher altitudes). The Sky Site system requires more frequent attention than a Stratellite or cellular tower network, but carries out its tasks at what should be very low cost.
I'm not sure that this will work out as a full-time replacement for towers, but it has obvious applications in both the developing world and in places recently struck by natural disasters. Inflation and release of cellular balloons can in principle happen very quickly, and can happen even during storms. We're generally disinclined to support systems that rely on disposable components -- recycle and reuse, people! -- but this has enough interesting potential that I'd like to see some effort go into figuring out how to make it a less wasteful process.
(Thanks for the tip, John Maas)
There are enough ecological troubles being caused by plastic bag pollution. The last thing we need it to add balloon flotsam to that mix. So perhaps the baloon could be made out of a biodegradable material, or one that dissolves into harmless chemicals upon contact with sea water.
Justin, you're right, but consider the positive effects. Just suppose you can increase access in sub-Saharan Africa - a place where plastics consumption is extremely low. The benefits would far far outweigh the probably very marginal pollution problem.
If it really works, I think this is a brilliant idea, because of its simplicity. It could be used at once in the developing world.
By the way, weather balloons are entirely made out of natural rubber, which is biodegradable.
Rather than ditch the balloon they could just deflate it so it can be reinflated when it is relauched.
You could eliminate the need for the parachute by just deflating the balloon gradually for a soft landing.
Another possibility would be to have the transmitter inside a small glider that is lifted by the balloon. When the balloon gets out of range the glider can bring the transmitter to a landing site. Even a poor glider would give you a 140 mile range from a 20 mile drop.
Fully retracting the balloon could be a problem.
The whole balloon thing might be not much of a problem anyway as the rubber (maybe latex) that the weather balloons are made of biodegrades in sunlight in a few weeks, unless they have changed the formula since I used them.
How much energy, waste, etc would go into building a tower that gives a similar coverage area? How much waste is created by driving etc where simply accessing and using information could be a viable substitute?
Sometimes it's not necessary to focus too much on the "ecopurity" of a rather minor detail like a balloon.