High-Altitude Balloons, Unpiloted Aircraft Seen As Answer to Emergency Communication Outages

By Stew Magnuson

The Federal Communications Commission is writing regulations for aerial platforms that can serve as temporary radio links in regions that have had their terrestrial systems wiped out during a disaster.

The Deployable Aerial Communications Architecture concept calls for unmanned aerial vehicles, balloons, or payloads that can be placed on piloted aircraft that can send and receive emergency transmissions for up to 96 hours after a catastrophe.

Hurricanes, earthquakes and other disasters have the potential to destroy terrestrial communication towers. The FCC wants to pave the way for companies that want to offer state or federal agencies systems that can serve as temporary communication links.

The vision calls for temporary nodes that can be deployed within 12 to 18 hours, and that are compatible with the same radios currently used by public safety agencies. In May, the FCC issued a Notice of Inquiry to see what industry had to offer.

One company that responded was Space Data, a Chandler, Ariz.-based firm that has deployed high-altitude balloons carrying communication payloads for the gas and oil industry and the U.S. military.

Near space is from about 65,000 to 90,000 feet — far enough up to avoid strong winds and to provide a wide footprint for radio communications.

“Aerial platforms because of their height can offer a lot of coverage,” said Jerry Knoblach, chairman and CEO of Space Data.

It demonstrated the capability to the Texas National Guard and U.S. Northern Command last year during the Coalition Warrior Interoperability Demonstration in western Texas.

In that test, subjects with standard radios in Austin were able to communicate with others in El Paso, some 600 miles away. Such radios typically have a range of about 10 miles, he said.

Next, the company plans to test the concept in Sacramento, Calif., and Bismarck, N.D., using 4G and Long Term Evolution cellular protocol. Those tests will use the 700 MHz band of spectrum that Congress recently reserved exclusively for public safety communications.

The trick for wide-area coverage will be dealing with the patchwork of frequencies different jurisdictions use, Knoblach noted. If there were a disaster in New Orleans, but Baton Rouge remained untouched, the FCC wouldn’t want the system to interfere with the capital’s emergency communications.

The challenge will be “trying to find how to make these systems provide the functionality they need in those critical hours after a disaster yet not cause interference problems with someone in a neighboring area,” he said.

Space Data first began offering its services to oil and gas companies so they could keep track of their assets over wide geographic areas. That caught the attention of the Air Force, which was looking for similar capabilities to be deployed over war zones. It awarded a $49 million contract to Space Data to deploy its technology.

Once the FCC establishes the rules, it will be up to state, local and federal agencies to acquire systems.  An FCC report detailed several options besides high-altitude balloons. Small hand-launched unpiloted aircraft could carry one communication payload and replace a single cell tower or serve as a repeater. High-altitude, long-endurance aircraft are designed to stay in the air for long periods — sometimes for months using solar power — and could provide wider footprints than small UAVs. The military has also experimented with these platforms for gathering intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance.

A system that could fit in a suitcase could also be placed inside a helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft and serve as a repeater, the FCC report said.

Along with Space Data, unmanned aircraft manufacturers AeroVironment and Aurora Flight Sciences Corp., and satellite service providers Via Sat Inc. and WildBlue Communications Inc. responded to the FCC’s requests for information.

The FCC will have to coordinate its rule making process with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Federal Aviation Administration before it proceeds, the report stated.

Topics: Homeland Security, Emergency Communications

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