High-flying robot plane may link phone networks

It's a "Stratellite," and its makers believe it will revolutionise the broadband and wireless industry ? if it ever gets off the ground.

| Updated on: Apr 13 2005, 19:05 IST

Is it a bird? Is it a plane?

No, it's a 'Stratellite,' and its makers believe it will revolutionise the broadband and wireless industry — if it ever gets off the ground.

Wisconsin communications company Sanswire on Tuesday unveiled its almost-finished prototype of a hard-framed, unmanned airship designed to fly in the stratosphere 13 miles above the earth and send broadband and mobile phone signals to an area the size of Texas.

'We're shooting for satellite replacement at a lower cost,' said Leigh Coleman, president of Sanswire parent GlobeTel Communications Corp. 'We believe this will change the way you communicate.'

When finished, the 245-foot-long, robot-piloted, solar-powered airship will resemble a double-tailed whale.

Flying above the jet stream but lower than a satellite - and one-tenth the cost at $25 million to $30 million — the Stratellite also would render land-based cell-phone towers obsolete, its makers say.

But that altitude is largely unused and untested, and GlobeTel CEO Tim Huff acknowledged the company doesn't yet have Federal Aviation Administration approval to launch an unmanned airship.

'It could be a 90 to 120 days process for NASA and the FAA to clear us' for a test flight over Edwards Air Force base, Huff said.

'We don't have a test date, but we're hoping for midsummer,' Huff said. 'But we're still years ahead of any other programme doing anything like this.'

The company hopes to start building and launching full-size Stratellites as soon as next year, with hundreds if not thousands of the devices eventually straddling the globe, staying aloft for months at a time.

Investors at Tuesday's much-anticipated unveiling in the southern California desert said they were excited by GlobeTel's performance and the company's promise to wireless phone users.

'Every time a call drops while someone is driving through the mountains, I say, 'Oh, don't worry, once Sanswire gets up there we won't have this problem,'' said investor Muriel Sigala of California.

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First Published Date: 13 Apr, 16:24 IST