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Gregory Gottlieb on aerostats and lighter-than-air flight

Updated: Oct 10, 2023

Subject-Matter Expert on aerostats at World Mobile

One of the most important components of World Mobile’s dynamic network is our Super AirNodes, the aerostats that provide mobile coverage and backhaul for AirNodes over a wide area far more efficiently than traditional cell towers used by mobile networks. These aerostats, tethered to a base station on the ground with a high-speed fibre connection, can deliver coverage to World Mobile customers and AirNode operators in places other telcos simply can’t go.

To understand more about these helium-filled balloons we can use to deliver efficient and affordable coverage globally, we spoke to Gregory Gottlieb, who is the Subject-Matter Expert on aerostats at World Mobile and a highly experienced industry veteran with extensive knowledge of modern aerostat deployments.

Discovering the beauty of lighter-than-air flight Gregory’s fascination with aerostat and airship technology began in the ‘90s. Even then, he realized the potential applications of the technology in the modern world.

“I discovered the benefits and, for that matter, the beauty of lighter-than-air flight back in 1990, when I was a British army officer and I did an academic study on the military applications of airships,” Gregory says.

“That led me to realise that this helium lift capability had amazing potential to do all sorts of things that people had overlooked for reasons which I've never really understood.”

“And so, for several years I ran a number of lighter-than-air programmes within the UK Ministry of Defence.”

Gregory ran a research programme for the government into the use of lighter-than-air tech, and after he left the military, he worked at an airship development company.

He went on to work more extensively with tethered aerostats, including conducting tests and evaluations for the American Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency and operating communications aerostats during the Iraq War as a civilian under fire. “Then I did a whole series of projects, initially for an American company and then for the governments of both UAE and Saudi Arabia, to introduce new types of aerostat to those two countries,” he says.

“Throughout my time here in the Middle East, now more than 18 years, I've promoted the use of air assets, developed new tech, technical uses for our assets, and been involved in the procurement, development, and operation of them, as well as occasionally rushing off to other parts of the world to help other people.”

World Mobile’s re-envisioning of the telco industry and the role aerostats could play in affordable mobile connectivity led to Gregory joining the team as a subject-matter expert. “I think when World Mobile found me, they recognized that as a telecommunications company they were about to morph into also being an aerostat company,” he says.

“The first step was to bring me in as a subject-matter expert to help World Mobile be an effective and intelligent customer for aerostats initially, and potentially in the future for stratospheric airships, which I have also worked extensively in.”

“I anticipate that the aerostat part of the World Mobile team will grow and evolve as the fleet of lighter-than-air assets gradually begins to roll out to meet the needs of World Mobile's markets,” he adds.

A complex and dynamic solution Gregory explains that unlike airships, which float free from tethers and can be piloted, aerostats are tethered to the ground, and he noted that both have an extensive history of applications. “An aerostat is one of a number of different types of lighter-than-air vehicle that have a long history, much longer than aeroplanes or anything else that flies. They rely on the basic principle that approximately one cubic meter of helium can generate effectively enough lift to carry one kilogram.”

The way an aerostat lifts a payload into the air is not by floating, but by displacing the air around it – similar to turning an empty glass upside down in a sink. The tether that keeps this floating balloon of helium fixed to the ground is among the most crucial components of the solution, Gregory explains.

“In the case of an aerostat which is tethered to the ground, you are effectively building a tower that is the height of the tether that is attached to the balloon. There are a number of complexities to aerostat design, but perhaps the most complex piece of technology involved is the design of the tether itself.”

“If you have a payload on the aerostat, any data or power or material that has to be used by that payload has to come up the tether.”

“At the same time, the tether has to provide the ability to raise and lower the tethered aerostat, change altitude, and also provide a strength member that prevents the aerostat from simply flying away,” he says

The tether that links a World Mobile Super AirNode to the base station below it is therefore both extremely durable and complex, while also providing a high-speed data connection and power supply to the communications payload on the aerostat itself.

A cost-effective technology for telecoms Gregory notes that aerostats can be used across various industries, and he believes the telecommunications industry is one of the most promising modern applications for aerostat technology.

“I think the main reason for that is that telecommunications is reliant on two technologies: towers and optical fibers. The combination of towers with optical fibers is a way of spreading access and capacity to an ever-wider audience.” “The trouble is that with towers made of metal, there's a limit to the height at which you can deploy them in a in a serious way in large numbers. But the beauty of a tethered aerostat is that it's a very stable platform, but at a significantly higher altitude.”

“For example, if a tower might be 20 or 30 meters tall, aerostats can operate at anything from 300 to 1,000 meters in telecommunications applications. That gives you a far bigger footprint on the ground and enables you to provide long-range, direct coverage over significant distances.” Aerostats aren’t without their own costs. Gregory explains that the construction and operation of the base station the balloon is tethered to is one of the major operational costs for aerostats, as is the tether, which uses advanced technology for durability.

“Most tether manufacturers develop their technology from submarine cables - not telecommunications cables, but the sort of cables that are hung out of the back of nuclear submarines for five or more kilometers. That's very sophisticated tether technology that feeds directly into the tether technology for aerostats,” he says.

The construction of the envelope (the balloon that is filled with helium) and the price of helium gas, which is relatively rare, are other costs to be considered in aerostat deployment. Lastly, there is the cost of the manpower needed to run the deployment and monitor the aerostat.

“Whether the manpower is located at the site of the aerostat or if it's located in a remote control room, lighter-than-air assets need constant monitoring, primarily because of weather constraints.”

Aerostats are surprisingly resilient to weather conditions and can adjust their altitude and other parameters to remain stable even under adverse weather conditions. Under hazardous weather, aerostats can be lowered to the ground until the adverse conditions have passed, with the World Mobile network able to switch dynamically to secondary backhaul mechanisms when this occurs.

Thanks to continued improvement in aerostat design and their suitability for telecoms applications, aerostats can deliver more efficient and cost-effective coverage than traditional cell towers, even considering the costs above.

Gregory believes firmly that aerostats are underused around the world, and that they can make a global difference in the quality and coverage of mobile networks through World Mobile’s solution.

“It is very exciting for somebody coming from a lighter-than-air background to see the imagination that World Mobile have put into their business model that enables lighter-than-air assets to finally be used for commercial use in a way that will genuinely improve people's lives in a cost-effective way,” he says.

“People have talked about using both airships and aerostats for more than a century. And now finally, here we have a potential mass adoption of lighter-than-air assets that will benefit people's lives and be affordable. In fact, it's the aerostat that helps to make it affordable.”

“That's one of the reasons I was so excited to become involved in World Mobile, because it's not a tiny niche market - it's an important and big market, and that's really exciting.”

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