Giant Aerostats Developed For Rural Cell Phone Service

Brazil may be first to test low-cost wireless system

Platforms Wireless International Corp. has tapped one of the world's oldest aeronautical technologies to create a high-tech unmanned blimp, also known as an aerostat, that it claims can quickly and cheaply provide wireless communications services to rural areas around the world.

Los Angeles-based Platforms Wireless today will conduct a final test of its 1,250-pound airborne payload. If the test is successful, Platforms Wireless plans to provide cellular telephone service to a 140-mile-diameter region of Brazil in June. The communications payload is mounted on a tethered aerostat twice the size of the Goodyear blimp, said Bob Perry, president of Platforms Wireless.

Since the aerostat floats at an altitude of 3 miles, it can provide cell phone coverage on every road and to each of the 75 small cities in the sparsely populated region at half the cost of installing transmitters and towers on the ground, according to Perry.

Platforms Wireless has inked a $25 million contract - conditional on the outcome of today's test with Brasilia-based AmeriCel SA - to launch and operate the aerostat.

Perry said the aerostats also cost considerably less than satellite systems such as the ill-fated Iridium constellation. "You can use existing [cell] handsets, not the heavy, $3,500 handsets needed for satellites," he said.

Old Tricks for New Dog

Tom Crouch, senior aeronautical curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, said Platforms Wireless has added a new twist to a very old idea. During the Civil War, Union troops used balloons for observation that sent results by wired telegraph circuits to commanders on the ground.

"In fact, [the balloon/telegraph technology] was demonstrated to President Lincoln from about the same spot where our building now sits," Crouch said.

The aerostat can be on the station for periods of four to six weeks between routine maintenance procedures, according to Francois Draper, Platforms Wireless's chief technology officer. The company can perform that maintenance in a two- to three-hour period during off-peak times.

For an additional $10 million, Platforms Wireless also provides an aircraft-mounted backup as another component of what it calls its Airborne Relay Communications system. AmeriCel declined that option due to cost considerations, Draper said.

Though winds are a concern, Draper said the aerostat can operate in winds of up to 90 mph.

Bill Miller, an airship designer celebrated by John McPhee in his book The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed, called aerostats "proven technology." Miller, president of Aereon Corp. in Princeton, N.J., noted that the "only major difficulty with a vehicle filled with helium is that the skin is permeable and leaks. That means it does eventually have to come down and get more helium."

Platforms Wireless said it wants to move its antennas even higher in the sky, using stratospheric platforms that operate at 70,000 feet or higher. Platforms Wireless Chairman Bill Martin said airships that can operate at such altitudes are three to five years from development.

Perry said the ability to provide low-cost communications to rural areas makes much of Asia, Africa, and South and Central America likely target markets.

Serving the rural U.S. from an airship connected to the ground by a 3-mile wire will be more difficult due to the density of air traffic in the U.S. and associated concerns of the Federal Aviation Administration, Perry said.

Copyright © 2001 IDG Communications, Inc.

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