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Sky's the limit

A former NASA manager is thinking big - and high - with his plans to replace unsightly cell towers with airships strategically situated 13 miles abouve the Earth.

Published August 29, 2006

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 for this month in this Mojave Desert city, about an hour 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 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 - about 13 miles - and stay aloft for 18 months at a time.

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. 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 telecommunications market research company.

"It's an example of a technology that's looking for a market," he said.

[Last modified August 29, 2006, 00:08:34]

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