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Weather Balloons & Wireless 157

Posted by Hemos
from the what-a-wonderful-world dept.
mansa writes "Over at CNN they have an article about a company that wants to expand wireless coverge with weather balloons! I hope it's not just a bunch of hot air! "
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Weather Balloons & Wireless

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  • Hasn't this... (Score:3, Informative)

    by boa13 (548222) on Sunday June 23, 2002 @12:16AM (#3751399) Homepage Journal
    been posted [slashdot.org] a few months ago?
  • Damn (Score:2, Funny)

    by dalassa (204012)
    "I hope it's not just a bunch or hot air!"

    Damn there goes my +5 funny.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 23, 2002 @12:18AM (#3751404)
    between wireless connectivity and UFO sightings.
    • Didn't the NSA, et. al. consider this prior to launching satellites for Sigint?

      There are several reasons they nixed it.

      Anyway, I'm sick of wireless. Maybe I can get my friend John to get some fiber splicing equipment again and run fiber to my house.

  • At least the name 'Airtouch' would make sense now. What the hell is a Verizon?
    • It's a horizon, but it's vertical... like when you're flying in a rocket and you look out the window. OK, I just made that up.
    • You know, at first glance, you'd think I'd know the answer to that, but, sorry, I don't.
    • When I worked at Verio I asked what the name meant. I was actually referred to a guy in the company who has the job title as "Verio Evangelist"(is the truth) his job was to go around making us feel good about the company. Though he didnt know a server from his elbow.

      Anyway, he told me that the name really didn't mean anything but I should tell customers that Verio was an empty vessel that could be 'filled' with anything the customer chose.

      What a crock of corporate bullshit.

      So much with the whats in a name. Shakespeare was allowed poetic license. Corporate flunkies not...

      Puto
  • by $carab (464226) on Sunday June 23, 2002 @12:18AM (#3751406) Journal
    But Space Data says its plan to create America's first floating wireless network -- by putting disposable transmitters on government weather balloons.

    Hick Farmer: "I just saw an UFO! It went over yonder trees!"
    [Bright Flash]
    Agent K: That was not a UFO you saw...it was a Government Weather Balloon designed to provide you with low cost, speedy, nationwide wireless access.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    i heard recently about a ultra-high-altitude remote control solar plane that's essentially one big wing- one of the uses being broadband/wireless internet access- which sounds to me to be a more viable solution than baloons that drift with wind currents.
  • by tarth (445054) on Sunday June 23, 2002 @12:22AM (#3751422)
    Is that really close enough to provide a decent signal? And more importantly (too me, anyway) is there anyway this could be rigged up to provide wireless internet access, 802.11b or otherwise?

    The article also says that 70 balloons are released every two days. I have wonder if 70 balloons is really going to cover all of America like they hope it will.
    • And more importantly (too me, anyway) is there anyway this could be rigged up to provide wireless internet access, 802.11b or otherwise?

      There's a reason we call it "fixed wireless" - making it mobile at 50,000 feet would require omni antennas with *much* greater transmitting power than even contemplated today.

      *scoove*

      • The height isn't the issue -- according to my first search result, here [ericsson.com.au], GSM's extended range cells extend to a radius of 60 kilometers, or about 200,000 feet in mobile to base station distance. The only reason GSM is normally limited to 17km distance is for frequency reuse and timing considerations. With base stations in balloons far above the earth you pretty much eliminate multipath interference...Except maybe from the ground beneath your feet.


        The claim that gives me pause is that the balloons will cover 100,000 square miles. That's a hypotenuse of about 180 miles at the edge of the cell.. That may indeed require a little more transmit power.

    • And more importantly (too me, anyway) is there anyway this could be rigged up to provide wireless internet access, 802.11b or otherwise?

      Yeah dude. On launching day, take your laptop with a wireless card, and hide behind a bush near the launch site. Just about when they are ready to let the balloon go, run out of the bushes with a "Whooo hooooooooallyourballoonarebelongtoussssss!" and grab onto the bottom of the balloon. It will go up and they will probably shoot at you with M16s but chances are they will not be expecting this and they will miss. Then, when you are high enough up there, turn on the laptop and with any luck you'll drift over San Franciso and you can get some sweet wi-fi action from a defunct dot com with its wireless network still running.

      Oh wait, you meant how can this help you get wireless access while you're still on the ground. Well... yeah.
  • Debris (Score:5, Interesting)

    by scoove (71173) on Sunday June 23, 2002 @12:22AM (#3751423)
    Every time I read one of these pie in the sky (or balloon in this case) stories, I can't believe the reporter didn't ask what I'd think would be the basic question: What is all this junk going to end up?

    We've had environmentalist complaints about PCs and all the toxic components they possess. Now some not-yet-defunct VC is pushing disposal cell sites and nobody's curious? What about when a 747 sucks one of these floating cell sites into an engine? And they complain about use of personal electronics on the plane...

    Heck, in high school we were told we couldn't launch balloon projects anymore (you know, where you'd put a note on it and ask the finder to call you and let you know where it ended up at) because the environmentalists said some sea critters mistook the deflated balloons for fish, ate them and choked to death.

    So where's the uproar from the ELF/ALF folks?

    *scoove*
    • You've missed that these baloons are being sent up anyway. Why not get more out of the payload?
    • Heck, in high school we were told we couldn't launch balloon projects anymore (you know, where you'd put a note on it and ask the finder to call you and let you know where it ended up at) because the environmentalists said some sea critters mistook the deflated balloons for fish, ate them and choked to death.

      I once mistook one of your ballons for fish, ate it, and *nearly* choked to death. Either that, or I was eating some food at Applebee's.
    • We are talking about just a few dozon baloons. It dosn't matter where they end up.
      • We are talking about just a few dozon baloons. It dosn't matter where they end up.

        Bzzt! Wrong answer.

        Take (for example) Antartica. Seeing as scientists launch approx 9,000 balloons a year from all the antarctic bases , that's a lot of ballons left lying (or floating) around. As most ballons are made of some form of plastic , they will likely remain in the environment for at least a hundred years. Animals often confuse ballons floating around for food and die.

        Personally , I don't think they've a hope in hell of providing any decent , permanent coverage from ballons... unless maybe if they were tethered.

    • Personally I agree about the environmental issue. I find it a bit bothering. Yes the balloons are already going up there - but the article said the company would launch their own if they could not use the weather ones. Also each Baloon will have $300 worth of kit attached to it. While I dont like the idea of this from an environmental point of view, I reckon its quite cool, because i'm sure they'll be hardware hackers out there quite happy to go hunting for this stuff.
    • "Every time I read one of these pie in the sky (or balloon in this case) stories, I can't believe the reporter didn't ask what I'd think would be the basic question: What is all this junk going to end up?"

      I agree on this issue.. 50,000 large balloons per year, Yikes!
      Taking a 5 to 6lb payload to 100,000 feet requires a sizable balloon. At least 30 to 40 ft in diameter!!

      Those suckers are going to come down, sometimes in a controlled fashion. But, a fair number will come down all by themselves!!

      On a busy highway?
      A commercial jet liner in flight?
      On a tall building/or bridge?
      Maybe some power lines?

      Imagine the headlines, when some school bus full of kids goes careening into a ravine, because a vary large balloon blocked the drivers vision!! NO thanks!

      • (I know you were trolling, but there are some valid points to be made in response.)

        The balloons themselves are made of latex, a natural substance derived from plants. They decay in ultraviolet light and break down quite naturally. An airplane hitting one of the balloons probably wouldn't notice. An airplane hitting one of the payloads might suffer some damage, but the construction of those radiosondes is for lightness, not durability. How much punishment do you need to take, riding up into the sky under a balloon?

        Of course, all the balloons come down by themselves within a rather short time. Sheer UV and ozone embrittlement of the balloon envelope will do it if nothing else does. They burst and come down in rather small pieces (if you want to see what happens you can buy a balloon from one of the scientific surplus houses which sell them, and inflate it with your shop vac until it explodes).

        What gets me is the claim that the payloads are unrecoverable. How hard could it be to equip each one with a mylar Rogallo kite and have it aim toward its ground station once the balloon bursts and lets it start gliding down? A 5:1 lift/drag ratio means a range of about 100 miles starting from 100,000 feet. What do you need to guide it, one model-airplane servo? This isn't rocket science.

    • 747's and other commercial air traffic fly no higher than 45,000 feet. These weather ballons, as mentioned in the article, float along at 100,000 feet. The chance of one of these weather ballons running into a commercial airliner are *very* remote.

      However, I'd still like to know where they all end up!
  • ... because now when the Superbowl or World Series is in town, Telephone companies can put these things up to help maintain reasonable wireless service. Maybe these could have even helped avoid the cell phone blockouts in NYC on 9/11
  • About half of that would go toward equipment: $300 worth for each of the 50,000 or so balloons that would be launched over the course of a year.

    I hope that some of the $300 accounts for a littering fine.

  • by Flakeloaf (321975) on Sunday June 23, 2002 @12:27AM (#3751443) Homepage
    As opposed to all of those *wired* balloons floating around out there, entangling birds and electrocuting poor innocent workers during lightning storms.
    • It's a buzzword. Everything without a wire is by virtue "wireless," and thus cool and can cost at least $10 more. I have a wireless toaster, in fact. I just look at it and indulge in my hipness on days I don't want to make toast.
  • -eption re-ly -n't that impor-t. -mean, who -ation. An- -o needs that so-t of pre-ure -nyway? -ad idea a- -e way.
    • That is more work than I usually put into it. I usually just go with a "Y" or a "N", or I call the person in question. I haven't found a AI word sensing technology yet that can beat talking to someone... in fact, that is why I got a phone and not a pager.
  • My experience with one of these "Wheather Ballons" was that the balloon fell to the ground and aliens scaned my network via their wifi connection. They then probed some of my folders, often reaching a level of 12 folders deep. This was considered research, and they thanked me for my cooperation.

    Of course, everyone I tell doesn't believe me.
  • Better alternatives (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward
    Clearly using free-floating weather balloons has a number of limitations and disadvantages.

    Now we know that NASA has great plans for its solar-powered airplane -- including acting as a semi-permanent flying repeater-station, but I wonder if smaller, cheaper options might not be available.

    For example... what about a much smaller (say 20-30 foot span) autonomous craft designed to soar thermals during the day (while charging its batteries and gaining as much altitude as it can) -- then revert to battery power and/or gradually descend during the hours of darkness.

    If the energy required to keep these craft airborn in the longer nights of winter was greater than that availble to be stored during the day then they could carry a fuel-load to power a high-efficiency internal combustion engine (probably a very small diesel engine). Every week or so the craft would have to land for refueling and maintenance -- but that's not a big deal.

    Just like the US military's Predator RPV, they could be programmed to land on a runway set aside specially for the purpose.

    The cost of a smaller craft, particularly one that wasn't totally reliant on solar-cells, would likely be much less than NASA's efforts -- thus allowing more of them to be built for a given budget.

    By using more craft, they could cruise at a much lower altititude than either the weather balloon or the NASA craft.

    Using modern composites, low cost GPS, and other "affordable" technologies, such a craft could likely be built for less than US$10K.

    Assuming a 50% duty cycle, a fleet of 10 craft could cover a huge area at a much lower cost than towers, and with the ability to dynamically vary the coverage area if required -- simply by repositioning the craft.
  • wait wouldn't it... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by neo8750 (566137)
    would the ballons not get blown around. Thus makeing wireless coverage in areas with lots of wind impossible or is this the whole idea?

    • No, because SUV-driving-cell-phone-talking people drive erratically enough and fast enough anyway that they could probably keep within range of one... and in true "Undercover Brother" style, they wouldn't spill thier drink either, although the drink would be a 48oz Starbucks and not orange cola.
  • Practical Concerns (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward
    The article states that the balloons were launched day in, day out. What about the poor weather days where the wind is gusty and fast? Does the cell coverage on those days get lost?
    Over the summer (in the southern hemisphere), I worked to help launch ozone measuring balloons, (same idea, more equipment), and we launched them only in fairly calm conditions. A balloon full of hydrogen is a fairly scary prospect when it's getting blown around. Does this also mean a commercial company will be putting extra pressure on the NWS to launch in potentially unsafe conditions? Scary thought!
  • "Since the chance of finding a balloon once it falls back to earth is remote, the company isn't counting on getting any equipment back once it is launched."

    This is just great! I was wondering how I was going to get the equipment for my own wireless network!

    • I wonder *how* remote.

      Theoretically , you should be able to pinpoint the last known position of a repeater before it went offline, by triangulating its position from a few ground stations. All you'd really need is a low-power "save me" beacon to home in on when it hits the deck. Presuming that there is anything left when it hits the deck, of course.

      Maybe someone could build a distributed client that measures signal strength and delay times to it's repeaters and (with a few other clients) triangulate positions from there. Would be good to have a webpage of 'downed wifi equipment' to trawl through... just in case.
  • by hajmola (82709)
    i would love to rate the submission as 'funny' - maybe we should start rating submissions.
    • But then none of the /. editors would be able to post stories, because their karma would hit rock bottom in a week!

      Come to think of it, you may be on to something. . .


  • A friend of mine who does some work for NASA was describing another wacky concept he heard about to expand wireless coverage. The idea is that enough commercial planes are in the air at any moment, and are spaced evenly enough, to provide coverage for much of the country. Certainly major cities would be well covered. And the nice thing is that busy travel times coincide with peak calling hours.

    • Unless off course planes are grounded for whatever reason (remember 911) or pilots go on strike etc. Besides disrupting the traveling infrastructure you would also disrupt (some of) the communication infrastructure.
    • Let's not also forget the "Please turn off all electronic devices during flight" rule. I highly doubt the airlines, or let alone the FAA, would allow 802.11b equipement to be mounted on commercial airliners. I'm sure it's feasible, and with enough work, a solution could be found.

      It's a good idea though... and I have to admit that a national meshed 802.11b network based on planes in the air would be very cool! :D
  • So, how did you get that antenna up there?

    It's a .... umm... a weeeth..er balloon, yeah, a weather baloon.

    (Hey, it worked once before.)
  • Clearly ... (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward
    ...using free-floating weather balloons has a number of limitations and disadvantages.

    Now we know that NASA has great plans for its solar-powered airplane -- including acting as a semi-permanent flying repeater-station, but I wonder if smaller, cheaper options might not be available.

    For example... what about a much smaller (say 20-30 foot span) autonomous craft designed to soar thermals during the day (while charging its batteries and gaining as much altitude as it can) -- then revert to battery power and/or gradually descend during the hours of darkness.

    If the energy required to keep these craft airborn in the longer nights of winter was greater than that availble to be stored during the day then they could carry a fuel-load to power a high-efficiency internal combustion engine (probably a very small diesel engine). Every week or so the craft would have to land for refueling and maintenance -- but that's not a big deal.

    Just like the US military's Predator RPV, they could be programmed to land on a runway set aside specially for the purpose.

    The cost of a smaller craft, particularly one that wasn't totally reliant on solar-cells, would likely be much less than NASA's efforts -- thus allowing more of them to be built for a given budget.

    By using more craft, they could cruise at a much lower altititude than either the weather balloon or the NASA craft.

    Using modern composites, low cost GPS, and other "affordable" technologies, such a craft could likely be built for less than US$10K.

    Assuming a 50% duty cycle, a fleet of 10 craft could cover a huge area at a much lower cost than towers, and with the ability to dynamically vary the coverage area if required -- simply by repositioning the craft.
  • The concept of putting transmitters in the sky isn't new. Iridium [iridium.com] has been doing worldwide telephone coverage by using satellites for years. The whole weather balloon receiver thing, while it's an interesting concept, sounds like it would be error prone (the coverage would be inconsistant due to weather balloons going up or down) and costly (To quote the article: "The company estimates its annual operating expenses at $35 million per year. About half of that would go toward equipment: $300 worth for each of the 50,000 or so balloons that would be launched over the course of a year.").
  • You do not have a future as a comedian. Don't quit your day job.

    Er, wait...

  • by Anonymous Coward
    What is really cheaper?
    Sending up weather balloons to cover large rural areas rather than putting up towers?

    To answer this question, we have to look deeply into the psychie of the average rural-area yokel. Does he prefer shooting up towers with buckshot or shooting down balloons with a high-caliber rifle. Which is more economic for the redneck? Will ammunition sales at WalMart effect this decision.

    Is it cheaper for the phone companies to patch holes in balloons or replate a tower.

    I didn't see any mention of this in their story. One can only hope that they took this into account.
    • ATTWS was nice enough to stick a huge ass tower up on the hill about .5km from my house. The neighbor yahoots think it's FUN to blow up the light on it. Idiots.
  • Hot Air? (Score:2, Informative)

    by Mindflayer75 (566412)
    I hope it's not just a bunch of hot air!

    Most weather balloons actually use Helium. The volume of He in the balloon expands with increased altitude which results in cooling of the gas... No "hot air" in this one as temperatures can drop to minus 125 degrees Celsius in polar mesospheric clouds that form over the summertime polar caps. However, most WX balloons don't get much higher than the stratosphere.

    Yes, I realise it was pun... just thought I throw in some factoids. :-)
    • Actually, they use Hydrogen [noaa.gov] too, as it is very much cheaper, and doesn't need to be carted around in tanks.

      Hydrogen can be generated in large amounts using a chemical reaction.

      (Calcuim Hydride + water-> Hydrogen Gas + Slaked Lime)

      Slaked Lime is pretty environmentally safe to get rid of, and requires little special handling.
  • Where's the photos of Britney Spears?

    OH, THAT kind of balloons. Sorry, my mistake.
  • ...here [slashdot.org] on Slashdot.

    Note: I'm posting this comment again so that the user that moderated my previous comment as "Redundant" will be right in a time-reversed parallel universe. ;)
  • 100,000 feet / 186,000 ft/sec = 0.53 * 2 = 1.075 second round trip. Quake would definitely suck. It would be annoying to have an extra second built into every link you click on, but that would probably be livable.

    • by mduell (72367) on Sunday June 23, 2002 @02:15AM (#3751697)
      Except the speed of light is 186,000sm/sec.. so it'd be 1/5280th of that figure, or 0.000203598485sec or .2msec or 200usec...
    • The fact that you got it wrong by three orders of magnitude, didn't bother a hapless moderator who thought your post was "interesting" :o)

      Anyway, on the Internet, the distances involved are usually much bigger than 100.00 ft, and yet online gaming doesn't seem to suffer because of that. No, I think this technology (high altitude baloons for signal relay) has some other, very important, inherent weaknesses.

  • by slewazimuth (579260) on Sunday June 23, 2002 @03:10AM (#3751769)
    "The balloons typically hover at about 100,000 feet for about 24 hours."

    Actually not quite...

    The balloon flights actually only last about two hours and then the balloons break. In fact the balloon flights in question are done world wide at 0000 and 1200 UCT (Used to be GMT). They record temperature, humidty, air pressure and by triangulating from the ground tracking antenna you can calculate upper level winds.

    I'm actually being generous with the length of flight. The time of year has a lot to do with the length of flight. The calculated height of the flight is related very much to the air pressure and for a flight to be valid it generally must be below 100 millibars. (The higher the balloon the lower the millibar reading). A flight reaching 3 millibars is around 120,000 ft. Summer flights usually have balloon bursts below 15 millibars. In winter early bursts, above 100 millibars, can require a second release, provided it happens within a given time window. The weather instrument package is called a radiosonde. Two types of upper air balloon a generally used for launching off the surface. For calmer winds a soft cheap latex balloon called a Kaysam is used and for adverse wind conditions or launch from a ship at sea a severe weather balloon called a Totex is used. (Totex is more rugged and more expensive)

    They say they plan to hitch a ride on the existing balloons. The short duration is going to be a problem. The balloons expand as they rise and then go BOOM

    I worked as an Aerological Observer for Environment Canada at a variety of Arctic Weather stations for about six years sending these suckers up there! There are long duration high altitude balloons out there, but the upper air program the article refers to doesn't use them, and the balloon shown in the photograph is of the variety to quickly put a few "holes" in the flight duration claim!

    Watch the investor's money go BOOM!

    • I've launched radiosondes from ships before; we used 100 gram latex balloons. But, I have to admit, the balloons barely make it off the steel beach when the ship is going 25+ knots. Another note, we considered a height of 500mb (18,000ft in midlats) to be an acceptable balloon launch, since one could still obtain quite a bit of info from it (e.g. LCL, CCL, Showalter, positive/negative energy areas, etc).
    • Excellent comment by slewazimuth. Only thing I can add are a few pictures of weather balloon launches [gdargaud.net], both of the described kind and also tethered balloons.
    • Watch the investor's money go BOOM!

      Exactly. Now, if the inventors had written that they were going to launch a fleet of wireless-equipped zepplins, piloted by former telecommunication industry executives (they're a dime a dozen right now), the story would have been more plausible.

      *scoove*
    • by Anonymous Coward
      I've launched a rawinsonde a few times for the NWS, and frankly I don't have a clue as to where they think that these things stay up in the air for more than MAYBE 6-7hrs, let alone 24.

      BTW, balloons burst about 2-3 hours after release, then they fall back to the ground via parachute. Granted it's a slower trip back down, but still...

      I'm thinking they've taken too many pulls off of the hydrogen tank.

      Check out some upper air data... [fsu.edu]

      Another link... [ucar.edu]

      See how many flights make it up to 110kft? [fsu.edu]

      Alot more make it to 90kft... [fsu.edu]

      NWS Upper-air Observations Homepage [noaa.gov]

      Too lazy to log in,
      wxnerd
  • 1.4MHz???? (Score:3, Informative)

    by vmalloc_ (516438) on Sunday June 23, 2002 @04:44AM (#3751850)
    In November, the company won the rights to use a designated frequency of 1.4 MHz in a Federal Communications Commission auction.

    I HOPE that's a typo, because if it isn't, that's smack-dab in the middle of the AM Broadcast Band (1400kHz), and I would be furious if the FCC was auctioning off spots on a precious resource like that to a bunch of nuts with weather balloons...
  • The weather baloons are all sent up at the same times. At least 4 times a day ( at 00,06,12 and 18 UTC ) but how do you get a continuous coverage out of that ?
  • In November, the company won the rights to use a designated frequency of 1.4 MHz in a Federal Communications Commission auction.

    Correct me if I'm wrong (if so, it's waaaay past my bedtime -- that's my excuse, and I'm sticking to it!), but isn't 1.4 MHz right smack dab in the middle of the existing terrestrial AM radio band of 530 kHz (0.53 MHz) to 1.72 MHz?

    If so, wouldn't a terrestrial AM tower blasting out its carrier at that frequency (1.39 or 1.41 MHz) totally blot out the signal from such a balloon?
  • ...if you were at the eye of a tornado that had sucked in a few hundred of these :-)
  • This will never work. Atleast for PCS freqencies.

    100k feet = 18 miles. Currently, the cell sites that I'm responsible for are at maximum 20 miles apart. A site 18 miles distant is going to provide zero coverage to anyone inside a building.

    In addition, 2 balloon sites, is going to have jack sh!t for capacity. Assuming these weather balloons are even capable of lifting our smallest GSM equipment (which is far more than the 6 pount limit mentioned in the article), each ballon would be have a maximum of 29 voice channels. That's enough to cover a busy city block, or a tiny town.

    Each of the weather balloons could provide service to an area of about 100,000 square miles
    Well duh. Are there going to be more than 30 people using their phone in that 100k square miles? You betcha.

    This is a moumentally stupid idea.

  • Weather balloons don't use hot air. They use helium. Hot air wouldn't stay hot for very long at the altitudes weather balloons reach.
  • by dbretton (242493) on Sunday June 23, 2002 @05:34PM (#3753564) Homepage
    but something similar would be very useful, and cheap.

    Heck, even the army is doing something like this. [army.mil]

  • by codepunk (167897)
    Why on earth don't these idiots approach all of the major airlines and mount the boxes to all airplanes. The airlines could charge for the usage and boost their profits. Think of how many airplanes are in the air over the usa at any given moment. Now the trick part is to design a cheap phased array antenna for the client side radio.

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