The stratosphere is a hostile place.
That was the view of Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner when he broke world records jumping from a helium balloon in the stratosphere for the Red Bull Stratos project.
But for folks like Andrew Antonio, who were working to make that jump possible, the stratosphere — which begins about 4 to 12 miles (6 to 20km) above the Earth’s surface — looked more like a place of opportunity.
Antonio joined with Jared Leidich to jump into those possibilities.
They cofounded Urban Sky based on the idea of using small stratospheric balloons that can be launched from anywhere to capture remote sensing and Earth observation data for customers.
Satellite Superheroes Host Scott MacKenzie talked with Antonio about Urban Sky’s innovative microballoon solutions and how they can deliver low-cost but high-resolution aerial imagery.
To hear their discussion, listen to the podcast now or read on for 3 key takeaways.
Takeaway 1: Microballoons are the scrappy little cousins of stratospheric balloons.
To carry heavy instrumentation for advanced space testing, scientists and engineers favor expensive stratospheric balloons. As tall as skyscrapers, they must be launched from airports or fixed infrastructure.
But for businesses and governments back on Earth, microballoons offer the agility and cost-efficiency to do what the big guys can’t: Launch from a mobile platform and regularly monitor specific areas an organization cares about.
Opting for agile and petite microballoons (about 18 feet or 5.5 meters tall, fully inflated), Urban Sky found mobile launching was possible. And, armed with lightweight optics for remote sensing, the balloons capture data organizations need.
The process is: One person launches the balloon, collects imagery over several thousand kilometers, lands the balloon and picks it up on the other side of the city, and then brings it back to headquarters.
“We use predictive wind analysis to let that balloon fly with zero emissions. We just let it float with the wind over the area we care about to capture a bunch of remote sensing and Earth observation data for customers,” Antonio explains.
Takeaway 2: Who needs a microballoon’s view from the stratosphere?
Various industries and companies are interested in how the Earth and their properties change on a monthly basis. For example, gas and oil companies may want to monitor their assets, and insurance companies may need monthly evaluations to refresh data for monthly property policy renewals.
Other use cases include rapid response information for a hurricane or flooding event, wildfire monitoring, and imagery cataloging.
The company is developing real-time monitoring for disaster events. Instead of collecting imagery after a flight, the precise location of a fire, for example, can be downlinked as the balloon flies over a national park or other remote area.
And imagery cataloging creates a historical archive for customer reference.
“We work with customers who may not need it tomorrow, but they’d like to see it every month,” explains Antonio. “So, we’ll be building a catalog of archived, highly refreshed, high-resolution data that anyone can subscribe to.”
Takeaway 3: Microballoons and satellites are collaborative, not competitive.
“The way to position this [microballoon] in the marketplace is: It can’t do everything a satellite can do but you can think of it like a balloon satellite,” says Antonio. “We don’t see this as a system that will replace satellites or replace aircraft or drones.”
He describes the remote sensing industry as requiring all those remote sensing systems to work together to provide the coverage customers need.
For example, balloon limitations currently mean that Urban Sky cannot offer global coverage across oceans or over an area of conflict. The microballoon must be able to be launched over an area and retrieved later that day.
Urban Sky currently deploys within 24 to 48 hours over areas of interest in Colorado, Texas, New Mexico, Nebraska, and Wyoming, and has plans to scale across the U.S.
Antonio describes balloon satellites as another technology layer to bring organizations information — a good option for low-cost, high-resolution data capture.
“We’re now operational in flying missions with high-resolution cameras on these small balloons, and our mission really is just to democratize access to more and better Earth observation data,” he says.
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