(This image of a Chinese surveillance balloon, taken by Billings, Montana resident Chase Doak, was circulated among news organizations, leading to acknowledgement of the balloon by United States government and military officials. The balloon’s trajectory included sensitive U.S. military installation airspace, and led to a ground stop at Billings Logan International Airport. The balloon was eventually shot down over the Atlantic Ocean after traversing much of the Continental U.S. Image credit: Chase Doak/Instagram/Wikimedia.)
The Chinese Spy Balloon incident captured the imagination of meme creators and animated a great deal of political discussion during the last week or so. There was a great deal of controversy about what the balloon was actually doing, whether it really belonged to the Chinese government, and what it might be capable of doing in the way of intelligence gathering. To get a better understanding, IIR called on Rema Matevosyan, co-founder and CEO, Near Space Labs, a startup that uses balloons to provide very high-resolution imagery to property/casualty insurance carriers.
In a recent interview with IIR, Matevosyan explained how Near Space Labs combines existing technologies and atmospheric knowledge with highly sophisticated robotics and other emerging technologies to provide very high-resolution imagery faster, helping insurers to improve both underwriting and claims outcomes. We were attracted by the story because of the creative way the firm combined these disparate disciplines to more speedily and economically create vital imagery than fixed-wing aircraft and satellites can manage. But it wasn’t just the fact, but also the manner in which Near Space Labs can pull this off: by controlling altitude through the amount of gas in the balloon, Near Space’s “Swifty” craft can catch winds that run in different directions. This enables a kind of aerial ballet that can cover the necessary ground efficiently.
Given the orchestrated quality Near Space’s flights, the most striking difference about the Chinese balloon was its relatively static approach to navigation. “Based on our understanding that the balloon flew at or around 60,000 ft it may have simply followed predominant winds that align with the reported route passing over Canada, Alaska, etc.,” Matevosyan comments. “[The Chinese]balloon was the size of three buses, and its navigation is mostly determined by prevailing wind—which is why it seems no evasive measures were taken once it was observed above the U.S. By comparison, Near Space Labs balloons are suitcase sized, designed for greater navigation control.”
One of the advantages of Near Space Labs’ craft is that they require no airfield to launch, which greatly eases deployment. They navigate mostly by the onboard robot and generally operate in a far smaller range than a balloon sent over the Pacific and across North America. This raised the question of whether a transoceanic or transcontinental balloon flight could be controlled via satellite.
“There are multiple options for satellite based TT&C (Telemetry, Tracking and Command) functionalities, so yes, this is relatively routine and the balloon could have had a modem,” Matevosyan says. “But again, the balloon seems to have navigated the prevailing winds at a fixed altitude, without any complicated maneuvers we could see.”
Matevosyan, whose experience includes research in systems engineering for complex aerospace systems, declines to comment on the range of data a spy satellite might connect and the means by which it would do so. However, she insists that Near Space Labs has built the best way for U.S. carriers to get access to the kind of scalable, high-resolution data needed to help U.S. homeowners and communities.
“The flexibility of the technology allows for continuous monitoring of risk which we believe is a critical component of risk mitigation,” she says. “In summary, we believe we have built here in the U.S. a superior technology that has far more beneficial applications for our businesses and communities.”