High-Altitude Platforms (HAPs), offer distinct advantages and are at the same time complementary to satellites. These balloons, airships, and pseudo-satellites are seeing a revival in interest and an upswing in the number of applications considered such as communications, ISR, scientific research and adventure tourism. A few recent announcements, however, point to what NSR found in its High-Altitude Platforms report: more partnerships and a significant focus on two key historical target applications, namely remote sensing and surveillance and scientific research, will help get future programs off and running.
The Thales Alenia Space Stratobus, an airship that was started in 2010 and is planned to stay aloft for 5 to 8 years at 20 km altitude, will benefit from the UAE’s Masdar Institute’s expertise in environmental monitoring, especially for desert and arid regions. Masdar Institute has an ongoing remote sensing research and development project that will be applied together with another partner, Mines ParisTech, a French university with a strong background and expertise in energy and remote sensing. Thales Alenia Space indicated a qualification and certification flight of a full-scale version of Stratobus will occur in 2020. This partnership is significant in that the program’s funding is expected to drop in the next 2 years and to carry it forward, significant growth in funding or new partnerships to continue its development will be needed.
At the recent American Meteorological Society (AMS) annual meeting, the Tucson-based balloon company World View indicated it struck a deal with EWR Radar Systems to fly weather radar on high-altitude flights later in 2017. This near-term meteorology application is basically to help the company, which launched over 50 balloon flights already and benefitted from roughly $40 M in investment, generate revenues from agencies such as NOAA as it continues to build its future adventure tourism balloons that will fly up to 30 km. It also conducts flights via NASA’s Flight Opportunities program.
Lastly, JP Aerospace, founded in 1985 in California and with many altitude records in its book, launches around 10 to 15 balloons per year with a regular set of scientific payloads and technology testbeds as well as videos and pictures of the Earth for media companies that provide recurring revenues. It has stable and modest growth with a view to offer long-term orbital access and human-rated launches. All the while, it is building the Avealto Ascender, a V-shaped test airship that will be used for regional communications by the UK-based newcomer. And, it has other more far-reaching projects in the works such as Dark Sky Station, which will feature a 6-person, 6-month duration vehicle as part of a forward-looking program called Airship to Orbit, which it claims will cost $280 million to get humans to space.
Be it lighter-than-air, with or without propulsion and with various reusability modes, HAPs are still a small, fragmented and under-the-radar market segment often overlooked. But HAPs serve or could potentially be used for a variety of diverse and new applications that show strong potential growth if technologies develop and mature enough over the next decade.
In the meantime, well-established apps and partnerships will enable HAPs to look forward to more diverse sets of new and emerging markets that could expand prospects significantly in new and uncharted territory.