Specifically, the company offers so-called “micro-balloons,” high-altitude balloons that can float into the stratosphere with a small payload and maintain a constant position over an area. The balloons were about the size of a Volkswagen when they were launched, and when inflated, they were about the size of a small car garage in the air. That’s much smaller than a typical stratospheric balloon, which when fully inflated can devour an entire football field.
Urban Sky envisions its technology for real-time wildfire monitoring, environmental changes, storm-related property damage, and more, at a lower cost than comparable satellite imagery. After conducting about 50 flight tests, the founders of Urban Sky say they are ready to start deploying their product on a regular basis, delivering images at 10cm-per-pixel resolution.
The company’s origins can be traced back to a program called StratEx, orchestrated by former Google executive Alan Eustace, which resulted in the world’s highest skydive from under a stratospheric balloon. Antonio worked on the project with Urban Sky co-founder Jared Leditch, which gave them their first exposure to stratospheric balloons. During development, the team would often fly smaller balloons equipped with GoPros alongside larger balloons for monitoring purposes.
Over the past few decades, payloads have been miniaturized. Companies like Planet and Spire have used CubeSats, small standardized satellites about the size of a shoebox to develop constellations of entire Earth imaging and monitoring. With this balloon, Urban Sky wants to do the same for the stratosphere.
In order to maintain a stable position in the sky, stratospheric balloons rely on a system of pipes that push gas out of the balloon at high altitudes. Deflating the system proved so difficult that many of the company’s early balloons dropped prematurely. They also experimented with the shape of the balloon to make sure it floated and stabilized as they wanted. Much work has focused on miniaturizing optical sensing devices so that they can fit into shoebox-sized payloads.
Urban Sky’s ultimate miniature balloon product that can carry imaging and data-gathering payloads weighing no more than 6 pounds. According to Urban Sky, the balloons can remain stable for tens of meters at anywhere from 17 to 21 kilometers in height. Customers need about 24 hours’ notice to plan a dedicated mission, which also depends on good weather, the company said. A mission usually lasts four to seven hours. When the mission is over, the balloon can be retrieved and used again.