How the Airborne Internet Will Work

NASA's Sub-space Plans

The Helios aircraft will be equipped with telecommunications equipment and stay airborne for six months straight.
The Helios aircraft will be equipped with telecommunications equipment and stay airborne for six months straight.
Photo courtesy NASA

Not to be left out of the high-flying Internet industry, NASA is also playing a role in a potential airborne Internet system being developed by AeroVironment. NASA and AeroVironment are working on a solar-powered, lightweight plane that could fly over a city for six months or more, at 60,000 feet, without landing. AeroVironment plans to use these unmanned planes as the carrier to provide broadband Internet access.

Helios is currently in the prototype stage, and there is still a lot of testing to be done to achieve the endurance levels needed for AeroVironment's telecommunications system. AeroVironment plans to launch its system within three years of receiving funding for the project. When it does, a single Helios airplane flying at 60,000 feet will cover a service area approximately 40 miles in diameter. For propulsion, it will use 14 brushless, 2-horsepower, direct-current electric motors.

The Helios prototype is constructed out of materials such as carbon fiber, graphite epoxy, Kevlar and Styrofoam, covered with a thin, transparent skin. The main pole supporting the wing is made out of carbon fiber, and is thicker on the top than on the bottom in order to absorb the constant bending during flight. The wing's ribs are made of epoxy and carbon fiber. Styrofoam comprises the wing's front edge, and a clear, plastic film is wrapped around the entire wing body.

The all-wing plane is divided into six sections, each 41 ft (12.5 m) long. A pod carrying the landing gear is attached under the wing portion of each section. These pods also house the batteries, flight-control computers and data instrumentation. Network hubs for AeroVironment's telecommunications system would likely be placed here as well.

It seems that airborne Internet could take off in the very near future. If and when those planes and blimps start circling to supplement our current modes of connection, downloading the massive files we've come to crave for entertainment or depend on for business purposes will be a snap -- even if we live somewhere in that "last mile."

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