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Giant Surveillance Balloons Are Lurking at the Edge of Space

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Because the stratollite is at the mercy of the wind, the ability to change altitude at will is critical for navigation. Winds move in different directions and at different speeds depending on the altitude, so stratollite’s minders can steer it by drifting up or down. On any given day, the altitude of the stratollite might change by as much as 25,000 feet depending on the wind patterns.

Founded in 2012 by Taber MacCallum and Jane Poynter of Biosphere 2 fame, World View was originally conceived as a platform for human journeys to the upper stratosphere. Given that only a handful of people have piloted stratospheric balloons and lived to tell the tale, it was an ambitious goal—but the company had the technical chops to back it up. In 2014, MacCallum and Poynter worked together on a mission to send Google executive Alan Eustace on a record-breaking space-diving journey to 136,000 feet suspended beneath a stratospheric balloon.

But it wasn’t at all clear there was enough demand for ferrying humans to the upper stratosphere, so in February, World View tapped Ryan Hartman, the former president and CEO of the drone company Insitu, to retool the company as a data services platform. The idea is to use long-lasting stratospheric balloons to collect high-resolution images of Earth and sell this data to the government and private companies.

Given his background in drones, Hartman is intimately familiar with the concept of Earth surveillance as a service. He says World View aims to fill a niche that can’t be met by more conventional technologies like drones and satellites, which involve compromises in the quality of images, the area these images cover, and the frequency with which images are collected. Stratospheric balloons promise cheap access to incredibly high-resolution images that can be collected anywhere on Earth. Using off-the-shelf imaging hardware, World View can take photos with 15 centimeter resolution from 75,000 feet, and its custom-made cameras will soon be capable of 5 centimeters.

The two-chambered superpressure balloon under the helium balloon remains deflated until the stratollite reaches its maximum altitude and is then rapidly pressurized with air.Photograph: Daniel Oberhaus

According to Hartman, World View’s system is sensitive enough to tell whether a person on the ground is “holding a shovel or a gun.” Unsurprisingly, perhaps, World View has attracted the interest of the US Department of Defense, which Hartman says will be one of the company’s first customers when it starts selling its data next year. He says the company has also received a lot of attention from the energy sector, which is interested in using the image data to monitor its oil and gas wells, transmission lines, and other critical assets.

Hartman is aware that not everyone will like the idea of a balloon-borne eye in the sky, but he is adamant that World View’s systems will be used responsibly. “This is not going to be a solution that is used for Big Brother-type applications,” he says. “The fastest way for us to become an over-regulated environment is to be irresponsible with the use of the technology.”

For example, he says the company isn’t going to let clients just “park a balloon over a city, open up the shutter, and have fun,” even though he says “there’d be a lot of people interested” in this type of dragnet surveillance. Instead, Hartman says he’d prefer to hear from customers who are interested in atmospheric research or climate science, which he sees as one of the stratollite’s most promising applications. World View collects reams of atmospheric data each flight, which the company is using to build what Hartman claims will be the most accurate model of stratospheric winds in existence.

In the future, Hartman envisions a global constellation of stratollites that communicate with each other to form a stratospheric mesh network providing real-time coverage of most of the Earth’s surface. The company is also working on other data-gathering devices like synthetic aperture radar, which can create 3D images of objects on the surface.

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