Next-generation Zeppelins launch

The future of reliable wireless communications may soon be — literally — up in the air.

Sanswire Networks LLC, a subsidiary of GlobeTel Communications Corp., has developed the Stratellite, an unmanned high-altitude rigid airship that will provide a stationary platform for transmitting wireless communications services.

“We see ourselves as a replacement for low altitude satellites and cell phone towers,” said Leigh A. Coleman, president of GlobeTel Communications Corp.

The airship is filled with helium. When launched, it will “half float and half fly to its altitude of 65,000 feet,” Coleman explained. “Once there, solar powered motors, coupled with GPS, will keep the Stratellite in position.”

The Stratellite will have a payload capacity of several thousand pounds and clear line-of-sight to approximately 300,000 square miles.

“The Stratellite will have fully redundant systems and be monitored from the ground,” he said. “In the unlikely event there is a problem, it can be flown back to Earth for repairs, then sent back up again. That’s not something you can do with a satellite.”

The cost of the Stratellite is about $30 million, compared to about $250 million for a satellite. Company officials point out that the Stratellite can self-launch, while a satellite must be put into orbit via a rocket.

The company is testing its 188-foot prototype in the California desert. Working ships will be larger, according to Coleman. “They will measure 240 to perhaps even 500 feet in length,” he said.

Hangars will have to be built for the larger of the new-generation Zeppelins, Coleman notes, adding the company sees its efforts as a rebirth of Zeppelin technology.

“Airship technology was cut off prematurely because of the Hindenburg disaster,” he said, referring to the destruction of the famous airship by fire as it landed in Lakehurst, N.J., on May 6, 1937. The ship, filled with hydrogen, burned quickly. The disaster was broadcast over the radio live and later shown in newsreels in movie theaters.

“If you think about it, it was the first major disaster that people saw live and was broadcast,” he said. “Suddenly people were afraid of Zeppelins when before that thousands of people were safely transported through the air in Zeppelins.”

Coleman predicts the first launch of the working Stratellite will take place in the fall of 2005.

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