A group of University students is working on sending balloons to high altitudes, though these balloons aren’t for gazing at beautiful landscapes.

The students are part of the high-altitude balloon teams in the College of Engineering, which are experimenting with using the balloons to extend the availability of the Internet to rural areas and disaster zones.

Students enrolled in Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences 583 — a space systems design class taught by Lecturer Darren McKague — are involved in the balloon technology efforts. The dozen students in the class, as well as other Engineering students, participate in the teams, which experiment with the basics of ballooning and aiming to use ballooning to expand the availability of mobile technology. The students will be launching the balloons later this week.

“Starting in the fall of 2010, the 583 group looked at balloons from a more top-level perspective of how do we use these to do something novel and cool and what came out of that was the Internet on balloon platforms,” said Rackham student Kevin Drumm, who is taking AOSS 583.

Rackham student and balloon team participant Zahid Hasan said the project is being funded by Google and is one of the most innovative of its kind in the United States.

“We’re being funded by Google to try to create Internet that’s mobile, so this could be used for disaster relief … but (also) later on to address rural areas so they can have the ability to have Internet without costly architecture on the ground,” Hasan said.

Rackham student Alex Bogatko, an AOSS student involved with the balloon teams, said many universities enjoy the “educational benefit” of allowing their students to experiment with ballooning, but do not usually expand these projects beyond various trials. However, the University’s balloon team is an exception, Hasan said.

“We’re trying to push beyond that,” Hasan said.

Because of these efforts, the University is ahead of other schools in ballooning innovations. Bogatko noted that Michigan Institute of Technology “is doing today what (the University) did five years ago.”

Using balloons to make Internet access more widespread has great potential, Hasan said.

Launching balloons after natural disasters, such as the tsunami in Japan last month or the earthquake that hit Haiti in January 2010, would give victims temporary access to cell phone communication, Hasan said.

As a part of their experiments, the balloon teams perform a series of launches. In addition to AOSS 583, or the Floating Point Operation, the High Altitude Solutions Team is an integral part of the launches. The HAS Team is responsible for operations that help launch the balloons, find the balloons when they land and track the balloons while they are in the air.

AOSS Prof. Thomas Zurbuchen, one of the advisers for the ballooning teams, has also connected the project to IMAGINE, a University-affiliated endeavor in which satellites are used to bring Internet access to parts of Africa. Drumm said he believes the work of the balloon teams at the University could prove to be another resource for IMAGINE in providing Internet access.

There are a variety of balloon materials used for different conditions and length of flights, according to Drumm. The teams use latex balloons, which typically last an hour and a half to two hours, and are about 10 to 15 feet in diameter before launching. The balloons then expand to about 30 feet after being launched, though some differ in size. The team hopes to use super pressure balloons in the future, which are used by NASA and last longer than other types.

Even without some of the more sophisticated balloon designs, Drumm said it would be possible to launch balloons to provide Internet access where many people are currently without it, like Japan due to the recent earthquake. It will only be a few more years until the technology can be used on a larger scale, according to Drumm.

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