PALMDALE, Calif. – Bob Jones has a lofty idea for improving communications around the world: Strategically float robotic airships above the Earth as an alternative to unsightly telecom towers on the ground and expensive satellites in space.
Jones, a former NASA manager, envisions a fleet of unmanned "Stratellites" hovering in the atmosphere and blanketing large swaths of territory with wireless access for high-speed data and voice communications.
The idea of using airships as communications platforms isn't new — it was widely floated during the dot-com boom. It didn't really fly then, and Jones is the first to admit the latest venture is a gamble.
Tethered flights of a prototype — which cost about $3 million to build and is about one-fifth scale model of the planned commercial airships — are scheduled later this month in this Mojave Desert city, about an hour's drive north of Los Angeles.
Jones says it will be a critical test of the technology.
"I don't want to see it fall on someone's back yard or have it float away to Las Vegas," said Jones, president of Stratellite developer Sanswire Networks LLC.
If everything goes as planned, remote-controlled flights would launch later this year from nearby Edwards Air Force Base.
During the tests, the airship is expected to float to 45,000 feet for several hours. Jones envisions the commercial airships will rise to 65,000 feet — or about 13 miles — and stay aloft for 18 months at a time.
For now, Jones' focus is on testing how well the parts of the airship work. He hopes to build a commercial vehicle in the next several years.
Unlike the cylindrical shape of a traditional blimp, a Stratellite has a broad, tapered nose like a shark. The solar-powered dirigible will carry a payload of radio and digital devices.
Interest in airships is on the rise. The U.S. military is exploring them for airborne reconnaissance and homeland security. Corporations also are increasingly eyeing them for civilian communication use.
At the height of the dot-com boom, several companies toyed with providing Internet and phone service from floating communications platforms. Many of those ideas foundered when the Internet bubble popped — and broadband delivered over phone and cable lines proliferated.
Still, airships might prove most useful in niche markets — rural dead zones, for example, or during natural disasters when terrestrial towers fail. After Hurricane Katrina, satellite-connected wireless phone providers saw a dramatic spike in usage in storm-ravaged Gulf Coast areas.
That limited market may not be enough for dirigible makers to survive, said Robert Rosenberg, president of Insight Research Corp., a New Jersey-based telecommunications market research company.
"It's an example of a technology that's looking for a market," he said.
Jones believes his solar-powered, helium-filled Stratellites — so named because they would hang in the stratosphere — could replace unsightly cell towers and cost less than satellites. Because of the airship's altitude, according to Jones, its radio equipment can cover an area the size of Texas.
Cell towers are hampered by line-of-sight limitations and limited range. Geostationary satellites suffer from the quarter-second it takes a signal to travel out 22,300 miles and back — insignificant in one-way TV transmissions, but terrible for two-way Internet computer communications.
Jones said his floating platforms will carry radio equipment that uses both licensed and unlicensed airwaves. The company will license spectrum if required and also work with companies that already have licenses, he said.
While Jones dreams of covering whole states with wireless services, Arizona-based Space Data thinks it can fill a cellular void by floating weather balloons in the stratosphere that would bring coverage to remote regions.
Space Data plans to test fly a balloon next month over a remote part of North Dakota to demonstrate the technology. The company, which is negotiating with several unidentified cell phone providers, could launch its first commercial balloon as early as next year over west Texas.
"Someday, you can just get a plan from your cell phone provider and you won't even know if you're on the balloon or if you're on the tower," said Chief Executive Jerry Knoblach. "You'll just talk but you'll have coverage even from the bottom of the Grand Canyon."
But questions abound about the durability of dirigibles. No vehicle has ever stayed in the stratosphere — located above the jet stream where clouds rarely form and where temperatures hover around freezing — for months at a time. It's unclear how the environment would affect a dirigible.
At Sanswire's guarded hangar, the 125-foot-long prototype named Sanswire 2 is held down by orange sandbags and cordoned off with yellow tape. About 10 employees scurried around to put the finishing touches on the airship before its maiden flight.
Jones' prototype weighs just 750 pounds and contains five separate helium chambers in case one leaks. It is made of tough carbon composite material that gives it a rigid structure like the zeppelins of the early 20th century.
Jones recently returned from a trip to Colombia, saying he spoke with government officials about the potential of deploying Stratellites in the Andes nation.
Other countries also expressed interest, but no contracts have been signed.
Some telecommunication analysts contend builders of high-altitude airships and blimps face a double whammy: The wireless market is already saturated and the technology is relatively new and unproven.
"More power to the entrepreneurs who are doing this," said Steven Titch, a telecommunications expert at the Heartland Institute in Chicago. "But it's a question of convincing venture capitalists that you can make it work."