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Broadband takes to the sky

Could an unmanned plane be the solution to attracting business to broadband?
Written by Max Smetannikov, Contributor on

The world's first unmanned plane intended as a telecom tower in the sky is attracting interest as a new way to get broadband Internet connections to businesses.

Helios, an aircraft resembling a giant wing, was built with funding and research help from NASA, and has flown successfully. Backers claim its transmission services will be far cheaper than satellites and more efficient than wireless towers.

"We have very poor broadband last-mile coverage in the world, and we are looking to provide a wireless link to do it," said Earl Cox, SkyTower Telecommunications' director of telecommunications.

SkyTower is a young subsidiary of solar-powered vehicles pioneer AeroVironment, which built and designed Helios. SkyTower hopes to begin mass production of the flying wings in 2003, and is in talks with potential partners, Cox said.

SkyTower's foray into the commercial world is a breakthrough of sorts for scientists working on federal government-funded projects. Getting Helios to launch took $150m of taxpayers' money and the development of a new way for private companies to contract with the federal government. The project involved research by NASA and engineering by a consortium of private companies.

SkyTower is not unique in looking to the skies for an answer to the broadband bottleneck. Angel Technologies has a plan to use a light airplane designed to fly in the stratosphere; this is its High Altitude Long Operation (HALO) Network. The airplane has tested successfully, but no customers have been announced yet. Platforms Wireless International wants to use blimps for wireless communications at an altitude of 15,000 feet and has signed one customer - Americel of Brazil.

But Helios is unique in its design and in plans for its use. With a wingspan of 247 feet - wider than a Boeing 747 - Helios is 6 feet high and weighs 1,850 pounds, which allows it to take off at just 30mph. It flies on the edge of Earth's atmosphere, 100,000 feet high.

Helios' 14 electric motors run on solar power generated by 65,000 solar cells by day, and on fuel cells energised by solar power by night. Helios' "brain" is an Apple Computer Macintosh computer that would guide it back to Earth when necessary.

Helios will be able to stay in the air for six months or longer because of its fuel cells and a limited number of moving parts. At an anticipated cost of $10m each, it will be far cheaper than conventional communications satellites, which cost about $200m each, backers say.

And that, Cox said, is why Helios will soon develop into a platform of choice for fixed broadband, next-generation wireless, narrowband and direct broadcast applications. He said Helios can supply data rates of 1.5 megabits per second to 125Mbps for a single user. The 30-millisecond latency of Helios-centred communications is comparable to that of fibre optics.

The plan is to launch the craft over large metropolitan areas such as New York City and San Francisco. The planes would essentially fly in circles, providing nonstop transmission for broadband services.

"Our plan is to work with existing service providers to offer new services. We will be manufacturing and operating aircraft, as well as procuring and supervising development of payloads and customer premises equipment," Cox said.

Backers are seeking investors to finance construction of Helios aircraft, and partners among telecom companies that would develop services using the new platform.

Analysts tracking flying platforms say the price tag of such solutions will be the main factor in their success or failure.

"Flying planes such as this gets a little bit expensive...there are cheaper solutions, like Platforms International," said Allen Nogee, senior analyst of Cahners In-Stat Group. "They [SkyTower] have a chance of raising money if they can prove the costs are offset by the coverage they are going to offer."

Technical experts at the telecom providers that SkyTower is soliciting as partners have not yet formed an opinion about the viability of flying platforms such as Helios.

Randy Bush, one of the people AT&T counts among its IP networking brain trust, said his personal opinion is that the Helios technology doesn't seem ready for prime time, though he will continue to watch it closely.

Helios-powered broadband service would require customers to buy or lease a satellite dish and a router hub. They would subscribe to Internet access as a service.

Executives at American Technology Alliances (AmTech), the firm that managed cooperation of NASA and private companies such as AeroVironment that were involved in the seven-year-long development cycle, said things did not start out well.

"The first meeting was with four companies - of which AeroVironment was one - and everybody said it was a terrible idea, that they would never participate, they would never cooperate and so forth," said Karen Robbins, AmTech's chief executive. Robbins oversees this cooperation project, which was dubbed Environmental Research Aircraft Sensor Technology Alliance.

The legal architecture grew out of an outer space colonisation research project that Robbins headed at NASA. Eventually, that framework was applied to work with vendors involved in the Helios launch.

The existence of this pipeline managed by AmTech means there are more "e-planes" en route from NASA to the private sector, an effort to create an industry around the invention and to secure a leading role for the US.

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