UK chooses high-altitude balloon as military satellite

On August 10, defense contractor Sierra Nevada announced it would supply high-altitude balloons to the UK, where the Ministry of Defense will experiment with using the balloons as communications relays and surveillance platforms. . The balloons are part of the ministry’s “Project Aether” and a demonstration of the technology under the contract is expected later this year.

High-altitude balloons are an attempt to solve a delicate problem in wartime. When an army enters combat against a new enemy, it does so without an existing communications infrastructure and without an innate awareness of the area in which it is fighting.

In the tender for Project Aether, released in December 2021, the ministry outlines a set of ambitious goals for the ultimately selected unmanned communications system. The chosen solution, whether it’s a drone or a balloon or something else, should be able to be “quickly maneuvered to any area of ​​interest in the world to provide ultra-persistent wide area communications in plus intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance”.

Not only will Project Aether produce a redeployable flying communications relay and scout, it must be able to transmit the information it collects in near real-time, in data formats that can be used by existing shipboard systems. , planes and carried by soldiers in the field. And whichever scout and relay you choose, they “must be on a mission for several months at a time with minimal resupply or maintenance effort.”

In other words, Project Aether is looking for a flying atmospheric satellite, which can be brought over a battlefield or war zone and then left in place as a useful watchtower. , out of range of any hostile force below.

The contract solicitation is ambivalent about the specific platform for Aether, aside from the fact that it will by design not have people on board. A heavier-than-air vehicle, such as the extremely long-endurance solar-powered Zephyr drone, is one possible answer. Instead, the high-altitude balloon offers a lighter-than-air vehicle.

[Related: A solar-powered Army drone has been flying for 40 days straight]

“Balloons offer higher operational altitudes than airplanes and can provide longer observing times at a much lower size, weight, power and cost than traditional ISR platforms,” said Josh Walsh. of Sierra Nevada Corp in the announcement.

Balloons are one of the oldest forms of military aircraft, with documented uses in wars by France in the 1790s, as well as limited use during the American Civil War. The ability to see a battlefield from above is tremendous, and human pilots aboard these hot air balloons are able to see enemy maneuvers from a distance. But balloons have many limitations: communicating this information initially required pilots to land, how outdated the information was, or requiring signal flags or telegraphs to communicate this information faster, albeit less accurately. . Balloons are also difficult to use in other than ideal atmospheric conditions, and the direction is highly dependent on wind direction.

For high-altitude balloons, the promise is that upon reaching a point in the sky between 60,000 and 90,000 feet above the ground, terrestrial weather concerns will be minimal, and the few winds encountered at these heights can be engineered or otherwise managed.

Writing about the prospect of military balloons for military review in 2019, Anthony Tingle of the U.S. Army argued that “while we may have crossed a technological threshold that dramatically increases the viability of high-altitude balloons, harnessing the power of this inhospitable realm will depend in part on conquering meteorology and physics”.

[Related: RIP Loon, Google’s balloon-based cellular network]

What balloons offer, at least potentially, is a sort of localized satellite, which can be launched cheaply and simply, but which has to contend with weather conditions and power supply instead of the comforting gravitational embrace of space. ‘orbit. The U.S. military, through its Space and Missile Defense Command, explored high-altitude balloons during trials at White Sands Missile Range in 2020. During an exercise in Norway in 2021, the US military used high-altitude balloons to discern weather conditions and assist with artillery targeting.

Putting sensors on balloons has long been a cheap way to launch them into the sky. (The famous object that crashed in Roswell in 1947 was a balloon with an acoustic sensor to listen for nuclear detonations, which the military described as a weather balloon.) What Project Aether hopes to do is transform balloons of a launch system collects data into a useful node in a battlefield communication network, a node capable of detecting hostile movements below and sharing this information in time to protect soldiers and gain battles.