Big surveillance balloons are lurking on the fringe of area

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Enlarge / World View recently completed a balloon launch on December 16.

It's a busy December morning at Spaceport Tucson, America's first (only?) Balloon launch pad, and a small army of technicians in safety vests are floating on the concrete after a long, cold night and thawing. Nearby, a white metal tripod the size of a smart car is attached to two dozen solar panels and thirty centimeters of clear plastic that extends across the pad.

This strange-looking invention is called "stratollite", a portmanteau of a "stratospheric satellite" operated by a company called World View Enterprises. It is a finely crafted surveillance device that is equipped with an array of sensors and a camera that is sensitive enough to detect people standing on the ground from the edge of space. The stratollite moves through two balloons, one filled with helium to provide buoyancy and the other with compressed air that acts as a steering system. When the device reaches a height of 22 km above sea level, the helium balloon is large enough to comfortably enclose a soccer field. But when empty, the width of the plastic is reminiscent of the detached skin of the rattlesnakes that house the surrounding Arizona desert.

Most of the crew have been at Spaceport Tucson since 2 a.m. and are preparing for the twelfth and final launch of World View. Things are looking good: the sun and a waning moon are fighting for attention in an almost cloudless sky, and an aerostat attached to the pad registers almost no wind. You couldn't ask for better conditions to launch the £ 1000 stratollit in a month and a half on the edge of space. Mission control gives the green light to start inflation. This process takes only a few minutes, but requires enough helium to fill more than a million party balloons.

Once the stratollite has reached its highest height, it rides against the wind for weeks and draws spaghetti-like patterns over the American Southwest. A condenser in the stratollite sucks in the scanty air in the upper atmosphere and pumps it into the second “positive pressure” balloon, which is attached under the helium balloon. The compressed air is denser than the helium, so that the pressure balloon acts as a weight. To decrease the height of the stratollite, increase the pressure and vice versa to rise higher.

Because the stratollite is exposed to the wind, the ability to change altitude at will is critical to navigation. Winds move in different directions and at different speeds depending on the height, so the Stratollite thinkers can control them by drifting up or down. On a given day, the height of the stratollit can change by up to 25,000 feet depending on the wind pattern.

World View was founded in 2012 by Taber MacCallum and Jane Poynter of Biosphere 2 and was originally intended as a platform for human travel to the upper stratosphere. Given that only a handful of people piloted stratospheric balloons and survived the fairy tale, it was an ambitious goal – but the company had the technical capabilities to support it. In 2014, MacCallum and Poynter collaborated on a mission to send Google manager Alan Eustace on a record-breaking space dive trip.

But it was not at all clear whether there was enough demand to move people to the upper stratosphere, and in February World View touched Ryan Hartman, former president and CEO of the drone company Insitu, to reshape the company to bring data service platform. The idea is to collect high-resolution images of the earth with long-lasting stratospheric balloons and sell this data to the government and private companies.

Given his experience with drones, Hartman is very familiar with the concept of earth surveillance as a service. He says World View aims to fill a void that more conventional technologies like drones and satellites can't. This involves compromising image quality, the area that these images cover, and the frequency with which images are collected. Stratospheric balloons promise cheap access to incredibly high-resolution images that can be collected anywhere on Earth. With commercially available imaging hardware, World View can take photos with a resolution of 15 centimeters from a distance of 75,000 feet, and its customized cameras will soon be able to take 5 centimeters.

According to Hartman, World View's system is sensitive enough to recognize whether a person on the ground "has a shovel or a weapon in hand". Not surprisingly, World View may have sparked US Department of Defense interest, which Hartman has said will be one of the company's first customers when it starts selling its data next year. He says the company has also received a lot of attention in the energy sector, which is interested in using the image data to monitor its oil and gas wells, transmission lines, and other critical assets.

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