Forget Google Earth, here comes real time high resolution imagery from airships

Satellite images like Google Earth are cool, but of course it’s limited to images that are days, weeks or even year old. There are times that you would like to see realtime overhead imagery (who’s that at the door?), but sadly that privilege is restricted to the NSA, CIA, MI6 and the rest of the alphabet soup. Basically, there is no cheap, reliable solution to get realtime overhead images or remote sensing as the discipline is called.

A fleet of airships, operated from the ground

Bojan Pecnik is a Croatian PhD in astrophysics, and he developed a solution: dirigible, remotely operated airships (“hyperspheres”) that can be operated from the ground not as a single unit, but as a fleet. With a limited number of these airships, he promises, he can make a border impregnable. But his vision extends way beyond that: the idea is to have a fleet of such airships covering the entire territory, essentially offering a new layer of infrastructure.

The other way of putting it would be: every square meter of ground would be under constant, real time, high resolution surveillance from the air. (Insert ‘Big Brother’ reference here).

Hypersphere: a real time Google Earth

Bojan Pecnik had the idea for Hypersphere more than ten years ago, but it was only in 2008 that he started to look into it more closely, after he became disenchanted with the world of academia.

His fascination for airships started when he read articles in Wired in the late nineties where airships were the object of much praise (apparently not much has changed since then). A couple of projects were trying at the time to use airships and blimps to use them as network stations for telecom. Most of the projects were very expensive, he noticed.

google earth bojan pecnik drones satellites hypersphere

Bojan Pecnik, building Hypersphere, a “real time Google Earth”

Bojan Pecnik: “I thought: this could be done much cheaper. And it turned out it could be done cheaper: our technology is basically an innovative airship, enabled by new tech, materials, and tools, but above all: smart people.”

“The basic idea was to develop an entire system of ground, air and data infrastructure that is so cost efficient that it could disrupt the entire industry of remote sensing – that’s a 7 billion € market worldwide. And we did succeed in reducing the cost of high resolution remote sensing by two orders of magnitude.”

Google Earth is, of course, the very low end of the market in aereal images – there are satellites offering real time images. The problem with these satellites is that they are quite old and hard to upgrade when better camera’s become available.

And a satellite is also not terribly convenient if you need surveillance in a particular spot, because satellites have a tendency to fly around quite a bit. So either you need an entire fleet of satellites to provide continuous coverage of a specific location, or you need a satellite in geosynchronous orbit. Which then hangs at 33 kilometers.

Bojan Pecnik: “And at that distance, you need a gigantic telescope to get a decent resolution. Another option is to use helicopters and airplanes, but that’s so cost ineffective that nobody does it. That’s basically where we come in: we have a fleet of airships that are in the air 24/7, 365 days, and we think we are able to run so cheaply that we can turn around the remote sensing industry.”

The per-flight-hour cost of the Hypersphere system is about $ 100, Bojan says: one hundred dollars.  The similar Heron 450 UAV has a per-flight-hour cost of 1500 $. Satellites and drones are even more expensive – the per flight hour cost of a Predator or Reaper drone is about 2500 to 3500 $.

Off the shelf innovation

Some of Hypersphere’s innovations are proprietary and patented, others are kept as in house knowledge. “Patents don’t really protect you all that much when you’re a small company. And even when you’re a big company, they don’t offer much protection against Chinese copycats.”

“Generally, the cost effectiveness of the project comes from the entire design of system. The airships themselves are almost entirely built with off the shelf components, and which is redundant and modular. If any component is broken, there’s always another component that can take on the role and keep the flight safe. At the flight base, it’s easy to replace any module with another, so the maintenance cycle is very short. Each one of our airships is in the air 6 months of the year – that’s the main reason we’re so cheap. No drone or helicopter can promise that.”

“And finally, there’s our concept of fleet operations. Usually, UAV’s are crewed individually: one predator drone has a crew of 20 or even 50 to operate it. We are basing our fleet operations more like air traffic control: a crew of 20 people can manage an airship fleet for a territory the size of Croatia.”

And that is the point of the Hypersphere, says Bojan. The idea is not to sell ten airships to this customer and another thirty to another. No. In every country, he envisions one Hypersphere fleet, which covers the entire territory. The imagery is then shared between different customers, based on their needs. That enables Hypersphere to generate revenues by selling low cost access to (part of) the real time database to public, enterprise or individual users.

If you think Google Earth and Streetview invade your privacy, you won’t like Hypersphere. At all. 

The government might want to have the imagery of the border. GPS manufacturers can finally offer accurate and real time traffic information. Customers might want to order a picture of their house. “Or maybe you’re visiting a landmark, and you want a picture. You take your phone and order the picture in real time,” says Bojan.

“In my vision, Hypersphere is a new layer of infrastructure. A realtime, online database of the situation for the whole country.” He is convinced that anyhow, something like a realtime, high resolution remote sensing solution for the whole world will see the light. “It’s not a matter of if, but a matter of when,” he says. “You can debate this question of when, just like colonies on Mars – Elon Musk thinks we’ll see them in twenty years, the NASA thinks two hundred years. But one thing is certain: it will happen.”

And with this, it’s high time to cry “Big Brother”. If you think Google Earth and Google Streetview are intrusions of your privacy, how would you like a system that is filming your house in real time? Hypersphere’s marketing materials are aimed squarely at governments and military. It’s a bit creepy: an army of remotely controlled airships, observing everything and everyone in high resolution in realtime.

Bojan: “Yes. But it can also be used for very useful civilian things, like agriculture, bird observation – even vector borne diseases. With the system, you can predict where malaria will strike in Africa, based on the flooding of certain parts of the land. It’s a very powerful tool. Like any tool, the use of it depends on the user. The police can spy on you. Your phone can be tapped – any communication device is a very bad technology in that sense. Smartphones are the worst devices of all. But all these privacy intrusions require a warrant. The same goes here: it’s regulation that will control its use.”

“Hypersphere is, in any case, not of much use as an offensive weapon,” he points out. The maximum payload is a 100 kilograms. “You won’t carry many bombs on it.”

Baumgartner’s next ride

He’s done some thinking about other ways to deploy Hypersphere airships. “You could make some nice parachute jumps from it, I think. It’s a bit like what Felix Baumgartner used when he did his record setting jump recently – he used a balloon, but it’s the same principle. Jumping from an airship is certainly far more comfortable than jumping from a plane that’s travelling at 200 kilometers an hour.” For personal transportation it’s less suited, he says. “It’s too big and too slow for that.”

And it’s also not a good alternative for ground level cell phone towers, he says. “Hypersphere would be perfect to add some mobile capacity over very crowded tourist regions in the high season. But to completely replace the ground installations, you should be able to guarantee 99,99% uptime, and we can’t do that. Once in a while, some very strong winds blog at high altitude, at hurricane speeds of up to 200 kilometers per hour, and we can’t fight those with the airship.”

“So for the time being we market it to governments for border patrol. And we hope we’ll generate enough profits to eventually roll out the larger vision.” Bojan is currently looking for a strategic partner who has the means to distribute the Hypersphere regionally or globally. “Remote sensing is already a 7 billion dollar industry. By 2020, we expect the market to double.”

Convincing people of his vision is not easy, Bojan says, because it is rather sweeping. “It’s a disruptive innovation, that requires you to embrace a different world. If it’s implemented, it will actually change the world, and that’s never easy to sell. To be honest, I was surprised that we found seed stage funding for this in 2008 – based on a Powerpoint presentation. But since then it’s been incredibly tough, even though we made so much progress.

Today we have a flying prototype, a patent, 120 000 hours of engineering work, a lot of tech developed. But we’re talking to an investor now, and I’m quite confident that the product will be brought to an operational level relatively soon. Once an investment is made, I think we can be operational in about 18 to 24 months.” Bojan thinks he’ll need about 5 million € to finish his project.

See the Hypersphere prototype fly indoors and outdoors:

Here’s to the crazy ones

What is it with Croatian engineers and their crazy projects, I ask. We recently interviewed Mate Rimac, who is building an EV supercar. And Marin Bek, another engineer is trying to sell the world on autonomous underwater vehicles (‘submarines’). He laughs. “No idea. Mate is doing great things with very little money. I mean, obviously you can buy a lot of potatoes with that money, but compared to other companies, he’s working with percenteges or even promille of their budgets.”

“I think it might have to do with the fact that we have top engineers available – as good as in the US and Europe, but at much cheaper salaries. With very little money, you can go above and beyond what is possible in most industries. Also, I noticed that people were very motivated to work with me on the Hypersphere. Because they can see their innovations making it into the system. That’s a great thing to see, as an engineer.”

Hypersphere 5k Overview from Bojan Pecnik on Vimeo.

Update: earth observation satellites do not operate at 36 000 km like geostationary satellites but much lower, at 800 km.

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About the author

Raf Weverbergh

Editor of whiteboard. Raf Weverbergh was a magazine journalist whose work appeared in magazines like Rolling Stone, Playboy, Mail on Sunday, Publico and South China Morning Post. He is the co-founder of FINN, a corporate communications agency where he advises startups and multinationals on their PR and Mustr, the easiest media database for PR professionals. You can contact him on Twitter, Linkedin or Skype (rafweverbergh).

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