In a major step for so-called “near-space” applications, the US Air Force is preparing to deploy a suborbital-altitude balloon equipped with a communications relay payload to an operational theatre next February, writes Stephen Trimble.

The Combat SkySat balloon could be the first product of a two-year campaign by air force leaders to seek out applications for balloons, dirigibles and airships in the region of near-space, or airspace between 65,000ft and 325,000ft (19,800-99,000m).

Lt Col Ed Tomme, deputy director of the Tactical Exploitiation of National Capabilities office, says the suitability of the Combat SkySat system was demonstrated in Arizona earlier this year.

The US Army in Iraq and Afghanistan has a requirement for a vehicle that can station a UHF repeater radio at 65,000ft. At that altitude, the Combat SkySat could extend the coverage of the service’s Thales PRC-148 radios from 12km to 640km, Tomme told Shephard’s Unmanned Vehicles North America conference in Miami early this month. The $20,000 balloons are available in quantity today.

Source: Flight International