World View Enterprises introduces a new kind of UAS

By Patrick C. Miller | October 13, 2016

World View Enterprises Inc. is challenging the idea that an aircraft needs an engine, a propeller or rotors to be considered an unmanned aircraft system (UAS).

Based in Tucson, Arizona, World View is combining the old technology of ballooning with the new command-and-control technology used for UAS to open a new world of potential applications for balloons, including communications, remote sensing, disaster response and weather monitoring.

Using the winds aloft for propulsion, the company expects to be launching its Stratollite UAS balloons for tests and commercial applications from its location in Arizona by the middle of next year.

Why balloons? As Taber MacCallum, World View’s chief technology officer, pointed out, the first people to see the curvature of the earth did so from a balloon flying on the edge of space. He said the Stratollite has the unique ability to operate for days, weeks, months or even up to a year in the “sweet spot” between the stratosphere and the troposphere—at 70,000 feet—while carrying a payload of up to 200 pounds.

“We think there are things satellites are doing that an unmanned aerial vehicle could be doing better,” MacCallum said. “In many ways, you’re operating a UAV the same. Where we get a lot of benefit over a conventional UAV is that we can fly for longer periods of time to amortize costs and keep them low.”

MacCallum said the idea for World View originally began as a space tourism venture five years ago that would give people a fantastic view from a balloon many miles above the Earth traveling at a leisurely pace. But then other possibilities opened up, such as carrying telescopes or having a Stratollite serve as a communications link—what he referred to as “a cell tower in the sky.”

MacCallum said World View is now studying the possibility of using a Stratollite as a launch platform for other UAS. It could carry another unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to a point where it’s needed, drop it and then serve as the aircraft’s communications link, reducing logistics, saving energy and lowering costs.

Jane Poynter, World View CEO, and MacCallum started the company following careers at Paragon Space Development Corp., which developed technologies for space and other extreme environments. Their team includes chief scientist Alan Stern—former chief of NASA’s space and Earth-science programs—and director of flight crew operations Mark Kelly—a former NASA astronaut who piloted two Space Shuttle flights.

As MacCallum explained, factors that make the Stratollite possible are the miniaturization of electronics, the control systems for UAS, improvements in battery technology and the ability to map winds aloft while using GPS to steer to the desired location and then remain there for an extended period of time—similar to a geostationary space satellite.

Another unique aspect of Stratollite is its ability to use air as ballast. MacCallum said solar power is used to compress air, giving the balloon an “infinite source of ballast to go up and down,” providing yet another example of combining old and new technology.

According to MacCallum, one of World View’s first partners is an electro-optics company that needs a persistent platform for surveillance. He said World View is currently completing an integrated facility for manufacturing and payload integration on the south side of Tucson.

 

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