Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
Sceye Inc. launched a new helium-filled airship Tuesday morning into the stratosphere above Roswell for a maiden, 24-hour flight that could pave the way for statewide broadband connectivity beamed from the sky.
The Roswell-based company, which itself was launched in 2014, has successfully test-flown different versions of the aircraft nine times since 2016 to assess the vehicle’s functionality and the capacity of the broadband-beaming technologies installed on board, said company founder and CEO Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen. But this is the first time Sceye (pronounced “Sky”) is attempting a full 24-hour cycle in the air.
If successful, it would mark a major turning point for the company to move forward with permanent flights using a fleet of five airships that could bring broadband to every corner of the state.
“It’s our Kitty Hawk moment,” Frandsen told the Journal in a video call from Roswell. “It’s our first attempt at a full diurnal flight.”
Moving from a 24-hour stint in the air to continuous flight over weeks and months is easier than initially proving the vehicle’s day-and-night capability for the first time, Frandsen said.
The helium that fills the hull provides the buoyancy needed to launch and float in the stratosphere at 65,000 feet up. Once in the sky, navigation is powered in the day by solar cells on the craft, and at night with specially designed batteries that the solar panels charge up during daylight.
“Closing that 24-hour loop in this first flight is the hard part,” Frandsen said. “If we can do it this first night, we can do all other nights, so we’re not worried about longevity. After proving the technology this first time, we can then push out to 30, 60 or 90 days and beyond.”
Like Sceye, various companies are working around the globe to develop high-altitude platform stations, or HAPS, to beam high-speed internet to underserved rural communities in the U.S. and elsewhere to help overcome the difficulty and expense of building out fiber networks or wireless technology in isolated locations. Those challenges have created a notorious “broadband gap” between urban and rural zones, especially in poorer communities, such as on tribal reservations like the Navajo Nation and in developing countries.
New Mexico is front and center in those efforts.
HAPSMobile Inc., for example – a joint venture between Japanese telecommunications firm SoftBank Inc. and aircraft development company AeroVironment – is now working at Spaceport America in southern New Mexico to develop a solar-powered, unmanned aerial vehicle to provide internet connection from the stratosphere.
Google Inc. also invested in a local startup, Titan Aerospace, that was building solar-powered drones for internet connectivity at the Moriarty Municipal Airport about 10 years ago. Google built a 60,000-square-foot facility in Moriarty for Titan operations, but later moved the company to California.
Sceye’s helium-filled blimps, however, represent a different approach to HAPS technology development that could significantly lower the costs for sky-beamed broadband, while also opening the door to many other airborne services. That could include everything from environmental monitoring of methane emissions and ozone pollution to early-warning detection against natural disasters and tracking and surveillance for things like illegal fishing and human trafficking, Frandsen said.
State agencies are already working with Sceye to potentially apply its technology for both environmental monitoring and broadband connectivity.
The Environment Department signed a memorandum of understanding with Sceye, said Environment Secretary James Kenney.
“We’re developing a monitoring program with them for a host of things,” Kenney told the Journal. “We’re hoping to see a first test flight with monitoring equipment on board sometime this fall or early next year.”
The state Department of Transportation is also considering Internet connectivity procurement with Sceye to power up digital road-safety signs in remote areas, said state Economic Development Secretary Alicia J. Keyes. In fact, the EDD approved $5 million in Local Economic Development Act funding for Sceye in 2020 for a local manufacturing plant here to build future aircraft fleets for deployment elsewhere.
The first five aircraft, however, would be for broadband-beaming in New Mexico.
“With five ships floating in the stratosphere, Sceye could expand broadband to 100% of the state,” Keyes told the Journal. “It could offer a much more progressive alternative for future development of high-speed internet than trying to build out ground-based infrastructure in rural areas.”
A consortium of local telecom companies is also working with Sceye to eventually procure its broadband coverage in tribal communities and other rural areas, said Sacred Wind Communications CEO John Badal.
“We need to think creatively to tap emerging technologies in the state,” Badal told the Journal. “Sceye is bringing a brilliant, innovative way to deliver broadband to New Mexico that can avoid the huge costs and slow development of terrestrial-based infrastructure.”
Sceye’s technology significantly lowers costs compared with other HAPS vehicles, because the company developed special materials for the helium-filled craft, Frandsen said. That includes a novel, ultra-light hull fabric, innovative envelopes for solar panels, and a battery system with much greater energy-storage density than others on the market, all of which substantially reduce aircraft weight.
Previous flight tests have proven the efficacy of those materials and craft functionality, as well as the broadband technology, including three successful flights to the stratosphere since May 2021. And in July, Sceye will begin test flights with environmental monitoring equipment on board, Frandsen said.
The ship itself has steadily evolved from a small, 70-foot craft in 2016 to a 270-foot vehicle today.
The company has invested $120 million to date. It currently operates at the Roswell International Air Center, and at the old Google facility in Moriarty, which Sceye is renting.
It employs about 50 people now, most based in Roswell.
Frandsen is known worldwide for developing ground-breaking medical technologies to fight malaria and other diseases through “Vestergaard,” a Switzerland-based global health corporation he founded and led for 22 years.
He’s focused on Sceye now to attack many more pressing global problems, Frandsen said.
“My past businesses have helped to improve public health, food security and safe drinking water,” he said. “Through Sceye, we can now help to close the world’s broadband gap and improve access to education, health and economic development, while also combating climate change and other issues through monitoring services.”