Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Urban Sky’s Reusable Microballoon

Microballoon: High-resolution aerial photographs are used across so many fields. They are essential for monitoring vegetation changes and determining the condition of grasslands, agricultural fields, infrastructure, and urban areas. Acquisition of high-resolution images by Unmanned Aerial Vehicles has several advantages over piloted aircraft missions, including lower cost, improved safety, flexibility in mission planning, and closer proximity to the target. When we talk about Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, we often refer to satellites, drones, and airplanes. We rarely consider other options. Colorado-based start-up Urban Sky’s innovation is providing higher resolution photos at a considerably lower cost using the newly developed Microballon system.

Urban Sky’s invention, the high-altitude Micro-balloon™, leverages advances in component miniaturization and material reusability to drastically reduce the cost of high-resolution remote sensing overbroad, targeted areas.

Microballoon

The Microballoon is the first ever reusable stratospheric balloon. One unit consists of a minor, 2.5-meter-diameter (8.2-feet), reusable stratospheric balloon, under which there is a payload module, including the high-resolution optical camera. The design allows other sensors to be used, such as infrared or hyperspectral cameras. At the same time, it’s also the first ever precisely placeable remote sensing balloon, which requires minimal personnel and equipment.

The balloon is partially filled with helium, which expands as it rises from the launch site. When it reaches the desired altitude, usually above 18.288 meters or 60.000 feet, the helium expands and fills the balloon, which now has a diameter of 5.5 meters (18 feet).

Excess gas can escape through strategically placed holes at the bottom of the balloon. This helps maintain the gas volume and keep the balloon at the required height.

The next step is taking photos using lenses designed to endure harsh stratospheric conditions. The camera rotates to capture a large area of the ground. The speed of the balloon and the camera rotation strongly correlate.

The color imagery is considerably sharper than the best imagery for commercial satellites. “What’s clear to us from talking to customers is that resolution matters,” Andrew Antonio, chief executive of Urban Sky, said in an interview. “Certain applications, especially when you’re trying to look at property characteristics, just are not doable with any of the existing or planned constellations that we see coming.”

Urban Sky

The ground-based crew can then remotely activate the payload module to release itself from the balloon. The release and return to the ground are designed so that the balloon is not lost, but as the module free falls, it pulls the balloon around so that all the helium can escape from what was previously the Microballoon’s bottom.

Then, a parachute is deployed at a lower altitude. The design of the system and its use make it possible for both the payload module and the balloon to be reused.

The Microballoon can potentially decrease the cost of aerial images drastically and might lead to further developments in the future. The images can be used in various fields, from disaster response to agriculture. They are helpful for mapping remote and difficult-to-access areas and urban areas. Furthermore, they can monitor infrastructure or oil and gas assets. The sustainability of the reusability of the balloons can prevent the growing volumes of pollution in space.

Micro balloons are already used by several private organizations in the United States. Urban Sky recently announced plans to develop a dedicated forest fire monitoring version for the US Air Force.

Andrea Nyilas
Andrea Nyilas
Andrea is a researcher and sustainability journalist. She is passionate about protecting our natural resources and is specifically interested in the circular economy, resource management, and waste prevention. She earned her MSc in environmental sciences and policy at Central European University, in Budapest.

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