logo for long-range communications storiesA 10-mile-high communications tower?

by MAJ Shawn Hollingsworth

As far-fetched as the concept of an ultra-high communications tower may seem, we�re living in a time when what was the impossible is now the probable.

Twenty years ago the Defense Department funded research on an unmanned aircraft that has solar power, the potential for extreme endurance (three to six months of continuous flight) and can fly 50,000 to 65,000 feet (9.46 to 12.3 miles) above the earth�s surface. The Pathfinder, surrogate to Helios I, was the project name then and still is today.

Along with the unmanned aircraft, a number of bright minds at DoD in the early 1980s came up with the idea of using an ultra-high-altitude communications platform that also serves as an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance gatherer. Overcome by expense, the program has continued to develop, but at the pace of the technology used on the vehicle.

The solar array is the vehicle�s primary power source and greatest cost, to the tune of $10 million per aircraft. The latest in solar technology is slow in development and cost-prohibitive except where the benefits outweigh the costs. The good news is that the extra kilowatt of power the solar panels produce is more than enough to power up to 220 pounds of command, control, communications, computers and ISR-enabling equipment, not to mention the cost savings and availability when compared to satellite usage. The next step in developing the platform is Helios II, which will reach altitudes of 100,000 feet and carry a 700-pound payload.

Currently Helios I makes day flights characteristically flown to a predetermined altitude of 50,000 to 80,000 feet, then gracefully descends to the earth�s surface. Helios set a world record Aug. 13, 2001, by ascending to 96,863 feet before beginning its descent. In case anyone thinks the commercial industry doesn�t see the benefit of an ultra-high communications tower, look at www.skytowerglobal.com; there are plans to launch fixed and mobile broadband, voice and direct-broadcast audio and video using this platform in 2003.

Helios I Helios I.

Why should the Army as well as the other services be interested in developing communications and ISR packages for this platform? Other than Helios being a shining example of beyond-line-of-sight communications, the answers are cost, availability, survivability, mobility, deployability, duration and one huge area of coverage ranging in excess of a 400-mile-diameter LOS footprint. Helios affords the capability of communicating with space-based and terrestrial-based communications assets, whether fixed or mobile, ship-to-ship or unit-to-unit, across the battlefield.

Given the possibilities of such a supertower, Helios has the interest of commercial industry. This summer Helios I is scheduled to launch with a commercial communications package. Later this year, the Japanese plan to test remote-sensor equipment on the bird. Funding for 2002 is essentially committed as far as the federal government is concerned, but we should develop avenues of approach for 2003.

The Fort Gordon, Ga., Battle Command Battle Lab � along with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command � are aggressively examining candidate technologies for use on the platform. There are a number of communications packages to consider for integration on Helios. The Enhanced Position-Location Reporting Systems, near-term digital radio and Single-Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System are front-runners for integration, with Small-Unit Operations/Situation-Awareness System waiting in the wings as technology develops. There are a host of ISR tools viable for consideration on this platform, but subject-matter experts need to contact us about the ones best suited for this use.

The most daunting task for consideration is the frequency spectrum. In the United States, for instance, there�s a 1,000-foot limitation placed on SINCGARS as well as a 54-kilohertz ceiling on the operational spectrum. Similar issues affect each option under consideration. Managing the frequency spectrum is nothing new, which is why a spectrum-request package that addresses both foreign and domestic frequency use is under development.

Developing Helios for use in military operations is a smart move; the sky is literally the limit. A number of Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine future operational capabilities will come to realization sooner by employing this platform.

If you�re interested in being involved in this effort and can provide assistance with its development, contact me at (706) 791-4819 (DSN 780-4819), or email hollings@gordon.army.mil or shawn-hollingsworth@us.army.mil.

MAJ Hollingsworth is chief of the Integration and Evaluation Division at Fort Gordon�s Battle Command Battle Lab.

Acronym QuickScan
DoD � Department of Defense
ISR � intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance
LOS � line of sight
SINCGARS � Single-Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System

dividing rule

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