Stratospheric Balloons Will Rain Tiny Electronic Spies From The Sky
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Google sister company Loon has just launched a service providing 4G internet to remote parts of Kenya from stratospheric balloons at 65,000 feet. The commercial launch shows the steerable balloon technology, which Loon has been working with since 2011, is now reliable enough for everyday use. This is a powerful new capability that the military is keen to exploit.
High altitude balloons are cheap and have unlimited flight time, but have previously been limited to drifting with the wind. That has now changed. The stratosphere is so-called because it is ‘stratified’, divided into many different layers, with winds blowing in different directions at different altitudes. In principle, a stratospheric balloon can go in any desired direction simply by rising or falling to the right layer and riding the wind. Companies like Raven Aerostar have developed the technology, which Loon use to hover their balloon over one spot to provide service to a specific area.
“The balloons dance on the winds in small loops to remain where needed,” writes Loon project lead Astro Teller.
The challenge has been developing sensors, algorithms, and software to navigate the winds reliably and precisely. The military is already exploring applications for the balloons. U.S. Southern Command has been carrying out a series of test flights with World View’s Stratollite balloons. These are able to ride winds stay in a very tight area, keeping a permanent watch over a particular area of interest, unlike low-earth satellites that only pass overhead at intervals.
“We think this has the potential to be a game-changer for us,” admiral Kurt Tidd, commander of US Southern Command, told New Scientist.
Stratospheric balloons may solve one of the U.S, military’s thorniest problems: gathering intelligence in ‘Anti-Access and Area Denial’ environments, places where the defenses are too dangerous for aircraft to approach.
The balloons are stealthy and can fly at altitudes of 90,000 feet or more, putting them well above the reach of most surface-to-air missiles. They are also extremely hard to shoot down: there are no fuel tanks to puncture or engines to damage. Shrapnel that would destroy an aircraft simply leaves a few small holes in the balloon envelope. When a giant weather balloon drifted off course in 1998, Canadian CF-18 Hornet pilots riddled it with more than a thousand cannon shells and several rockets with no noticeable effect. British and America jets also failed to bring the stray balloon down and it only crashed after several days.
A new U.S. Army project aims to employ stratospheric balloons to drop a shower of electronic sensors into denied areas. Air-dropped sensors have been used since Project Igloo White covertly monitored traffic moving down the Ho Chi Minh trail during the Vietnam war. The modern versions are tiny electronic devices disguised as rocks with concealed solar cells that can keep sending back data for years.
The new project would leverage emerging Internet of Things technology for miniature low-cost sensors and communications. The aim is to monitor the ‘Cyber-Electromagnetic Environment’, locating and tracking radio communications from Wi-Fi, cellphones, and military communication systems. This would provide data about the location of enemy units and specific vehicles. In particular, the sensors will identify and pinpoint targets for “long-range precision fires” by the Army’s new long-range missiles which can hit targets several hundred miles away — if they know where to aim. Afterwards the sensors will provide battle damage assessment to determine what had been destroyed.
As well as various types of electromagnetic detectors, the new devices may incorporate seismic sensors to detect passing vehicles. Future development may add sensors for chemical, biological, or nuclear monitoring.
Early projects required big, expensive electronics; the 1960s Igloo White sensors each weighed twenty-five pounds and were the size of a fencepost. Modern ground sensors fit in your palm, and the new project wants then even smaller and cheaper, approaching the concept of ubiquitous ‘smart dust’ explored by DARPA.
The balloon-dropped sensors may exploit technology developed by the Office of Naval Research’s CICADA project to seed an area with electronic spies. Each CICADA – ‘Close-in Covert Autonomous Disposable Aircraft’ – is a circuit board carrying sensors folded into an aerodynamic shape like a paper plane. CICADAs would be released from an aircraft at high altitude to glide down and deliver their payload to specific GPS coordinates on the ground. Several flight demonstrations have been carried out to date, including one dropping 32 CICADAs at once. Their glide ratio is better than 3:1, so dropped from 60,000 feet they could land forty miles away.
Stratospheric balloons have unlimited range, so they could drop sensors anywhere in the world. Like other unmanned craft, they are deniable, so even getting shot down is not necessarily a major problem. The U.S. did something similar in the 1950s with Project Genetrix which floated ‘weather balloons’ with photographic gear to spy over the Soviet Union.
Balloon-dropped sensors could provide a window into all sorts of places that are currently inaccessible. However, the new balloon developments are a two-edged sword; as Loon’s new launch shows, this technology is not confined to the U.S. military. In 2017 Chinese researchers launched two drones from a stratospheric balloon. Soon everyone will need to watch out not just for eyes in the sky but spies from the sky.
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