What does a balloon do when it drifts through the stratosphere for almost a year? A Loon system set a new flight time record of 312 days at the start of this year. HBAL703 was launched from Puerto Rico in May 2019 and then navigated for Peru, performing test services there for three months before being sent south to circumnavigate the globe and end its journey in Baja, Mexico, in March 2020. The flight system, which resembles more of a balloon-based high-altitude platform (HAP) than a conventional high-altitude balloon, did more than give proof of how robustly and reliably such “pumpkin-shaped” systems work when constantly monitored during their flight. Automated systems estimate the lift gas volumes in the balloon and adjust the amount of ballast throughout the flight to ensure that the balloon film is not overstressed when the sun shines on it and the pressure inside the balloon rises. Conversely, the navigation system chooses altitudes that keep the balloon warm enough to stay pressurised through the night when the stratosphere is very cold.
Long flights such as these promise benefits above all for connectivity, since things such as internet connections for remote regions on the earth’s surface can be established by a balloon. Longer flights firstly lead to lower costs per hour of flight. Secondly, longer Loon flights can also reach remote locations. Moreover, a balloon can remain at a location that is normally difficult to reach and requires longer periods of time, like the middle of the Pacific Ocean for example. The company says that all of this adds up to being able to spread cellular towers in the sky and build “a new layer of connectivity technology in the stratosphere”, with a purpose of connecting regions previously considered impossible to serve. The project further aims to explore other possibilities for using the stratosphere to tap into a market for telecommunications, high-resolution earth observation and weather prediction and modelling. To this end, Loon has co-founded the HAPS Alliance, a group of telecommunications, satellite, aerospace and technology companies that help with the research and growth of a new industry.
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