If you’ve ever traveled through rural areas, you know it can be difficult to get a signal on your phone. While it’s frustrating during travel, it’s actually the reality for much of the world: over four billion people don’t have reliable internet access. Another 1.6 billion lack voice service (albeit with a great deal of overlap). The problem is that cell towers are expensive to construct and have a limited range. Instead, people are turning to blimps to connect them to the web.
Companies like Altaeros are launching fleets of “SuperTower” blimps, which offer 4G LTE or 5G to a wide radius, giving remote areas reliable internet and phone service. The airship itself is fairly standard: a massive gas-filled balloon with stabilizing fins and a power system. The SuperTower ST200 uses helium to both lift the blimp off the ground and hold its shape, classifying it as a non-rigid airship. The balloon, or envelope, is likely made from materials like Dacron and Mylar.
The envelope is either sewn together or heat-sealed, then coated with aluminized paint to protect against sunlight. This step is particularly important when dealing with the fragile electronics needed for internet coverage. Once the envelope is secure, it is filled with helium and other components (like the bladder and catenary curtains) are installed. Both the tail and gondola are made from lightweight metal to remain airborne alongside the rest of the blimp.
None of this differs greatly from the production of traditional blimps. The real difference is in what stays on the ground. Thanks to the tethers (which also feature power conductors and fiber optics), the blimp can be lowered to a rotating ground station at any time. From here, the payload can be accessed and fixed or changed. This is also where the blimp will recharge. A networking shed will also be on the ground, with the main control interface and a backhaul interconnect system.
How Are SuperBlimps Different From Cell Towers?
For reference, a cell tower is built using materials like steel or iron. Before construction on the tower itself begins, the area must be wired with the proper utilities. Most companies use T-1 lines made from copper or fiber optics. Transmitters, receivers, and other electrical equipment is installed nearby. These are often camouflaged to protect them or place them in fenced concrete pads. After the tower is erected, antennas are placed on top to extend the range. As one might expect, the more elevation at the site, the better the coverage will be.
This is why using blimps offers such a wide range of cell and internet coverage. Airships can reach a much higher altitude than traditional towers, giving them a larger radius. There is also no need for a ground crew except for upkeep; the blimp can be controlled autonomously without anybody on site. Lastly, because the antennas and other equipment are kept up in the gondola of the blimp, it makes it difficult for potential vandals to access it. (Granted, the control shed must still be protected, but this is par for the course.)
It’s fascinating to see older technology- blimps- being adapted for use in the modern age. After all, airships have been around since 1783 with the invention of the hot-air balloon. But the internet is decidedly modern and combining the two to bring greater accessibility to those in remote areas makes perfect sense. As we rely on our devices more, the need for reliable coverage grows. If it takes relying on what now seems almost primitive and dated to make that happen, then we say prepare for liftoff.
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