TechStratospheric drones: The looming threat and future of telecommunications, Russia and the West in focus

Stratospheric drones: The looming threat and future of telecommunications, Russia and the West in focus

Stratospheric drone Helios
Stratospheric drone Helios
Images source: © AeroEnvironment, NASA
11:13 AM EST, February 1, 2024

In 2023, the world monitored closely as America grappled with Chinese aerostats. These spy apparatuses - balloons soaring more than 65,000 feet above the ground - proved to be a significant threat to the world's most powerful country.

Their destruction was made complex by the uncertainties regarding the carried load and purely technical issues. Contrary to common perception, shooting down an aerostat is far from simple. Purely puncturing bullet holes into the body of a giant balloon doesn't create much impact in the skinny air.

While Americans were eventually successful in shooting down the Chinese equipment, the encounter and the subsequent involvement of aircraft like the U-2 Dragon Lady and the F-22 Raptor clearly illustrated the difficulty posed by objects moving at extremely high altitudes.

Stratospheric Drones

The Russians have recognized this issue too, and one of the pro-Kremlin "Military Review" authors, Yevgeny Fedorov, has presented an analysis of the opportunities and challenges. He emphasizes that stratospheric balloons are merely the first in a series of challenges, as even more significant problems may arise from other devices flying at such high altitudes, particularly pseudo-satellites.

The term pseudo-satellites refers to high-altitude drones. These are ultra-lightweight structures designed to function in the skinny air found at elevations of 65,000 feet and above for prolonged periods.

The Korean stratospheric drone KARI EAV-3 reached a height of 22 km.
The Korean stratospheric drone KARI EAV-3 reached a height of 22 km.© Korea Aerospace Research Institute

Thanks to increasingly efficient solar panels and progressively lighter batteries, these machines can produce and store energy effectively enough to remain airborne throughout the night and start generating electricity again at dawn. Theoretically, this allows for an almost infinite flight time, restricted mainly by maintenance needs or wear and tear of onboard devices.

An excellent example of this would be the progressively advanced drone series from the Zephyr family developed by Airbus. The latest tested machine, the Zephyr S, stayed airborne for 26 days, reaching an altitude of 75,000 feet. This unmanned aircraft, sporting a wingspan of nearly 82 feet, weighs only 165 lbs, with the payload accounting for about 11 lbs.

How high do pseudosatellites fly?
How high do pseudosatellites fly?© WP

Pseudo-Satellites: An Alternative to Aerostats and Satellites

Pseudo-satellites possess a significant advantage over aerostats: they can be maneuvered effectively, for instance, to hover over a designated spot for weeks. However, because of their slow speed and small effective reflective surface, detecting such objects with tools designed for more extensive and faster aircraft can be challenging.

At the same time, pseudo-satellites offer numerous advantages compared to satellites. While they currently have a limited lifting capacity that restricts the payload that can be transported, they can almost instantly provide data. They can be put over a region more quickly and cost-effectively than space missions.

A significant drawback, however, is the high sensitivity of such ultra-light structures to weather conditions, primarily at the launching and landing stages. During flights, pseudo-satellites travel at altitudes where atmospheric conditions pose minimal issues.

Simultaneously, the substantial technical challenges can't be disregarded. Though drones such as the Zephyr S (Airbus) or PHASA-35 (BAE Systems) have demonstrated their abilities, the failure of similar projects undertaken by Google (Project Loon - involving balloons) and Facebook (Aquila drones) elucidates that years of experience cannot be quickly substituted.

Future of Telecommunication Network

What practical applications do such devices have? Surveillance and reconnaissance appear to be the most straightforward -- high-altitude equipment with reconnaissance apparatus can cover a vast area. The technical challenge, for now, remains the relatively small payload capacity.

Beyond that, telecommunications is the most crucial potential application area for pseudo-satellites. Objects located at extremely high altitudes can serve as retransmission points, providing communication in areas without infrastructure far more cost-effectively than current solutions, like Starlink.

The benefits are not just in terms of cost but also quality. Compared with satellite communications, pseudo-satellites can provide higher bandwidth and, importantly, in military applications - much lower data transmission delays.

Consequently, the prospect of building ad hoc, dispersed telecommunications networks using pseudo-satellites has piqued the interest of many countries' armed forces, with significant research being conducted by Great Britain and the United States, among others.

The West's Growing Advantage

As Yevgeny Fedorov notes, although the pseudo-satellite industry holds promise and could potentially offer immense benefits to the military, this field is almost entirely neglected in Russia and is being aggressively pursued in the West.

As per Fedorov, the West will soon gain another edge - it will be able to create a multi-element communication network quickly and exceptionally, assuring dominance in data access.

Russia's ability to respond similarly is questionable, and while destroying Western infrastructure operating at excessively high altitudes is possible, the scale of the challenges this would involve poses another significant problem for the Russians.

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