A zeppelin will replace all the terrestrial mobile phone antennas in Switzerland - if a Swiss inventor has his way.
Should Kamal Alavi's project for the high-tech airship take off, the worlds of mobile telephony and data transmission would be turned on their heads.
Not only would the technology, called High Altitude Platform Systems (Haps), make the current 1,000 earth-bound antennas redundant, it would drastically reduce radiation.
A Swiss of Iranian extraction, Alavi is a former aerospace engineer turned entrepreneur who heads his own firm, Stratxx. Together with a team of 50 scientists, he is preparing a 2007 test run of the airship, which he has named the "X station".
Thanks to a GPS steering system developed by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, the 60-meter long helium-filled balloon will remain stationary at 21 kilometres above the earth.
A small-unmanned aircraft outfitted with a mobile phone antenna and other devices for transmitting digital data will be attached to the zeppelin. The X station has been equipped with giant propellers to help counter the almost constant buffeting from the wind.
Solar panels will supply the energy to propel the airplane and antenna. Underneath will be a platform containing technical equipment, conceived by Ruag, the large Swiss aerospace concern.
"Transmitting on earth causes lots of radiation, because you have to penetrate countless buildings," Alavi says, arguing that phone connections are more reliable when transmitted from above because the signals are unobstructed by manmade or natural objects.
And "spot beam" antennas developed at Lausanne will allow radiation to be adjusted according to usage, regions with little activity receiving relatively less.
But Switzerland's largest mobile telephone operator, Swisscom believes not all of the technological hurdles have been overcome.
"This project cannot replace the present mobile telephone system," spokesman Sepp Huber told swissinfo.
The X station would not be limited to forwarding mobile telephone signals, but would also be capable of handling the radio, television and internet needs of entire nations.
Alavi believes that his project is also economical. He estimates that a Haps airship will cost no more than SFr40 million ($32 million).
In comparison, a single mobile phone antenna costs about SFr300,000 while a communications satellite starts at SFr600 million.
Alavi says the X stations are conceived to be low maintenance. In the event of a defect, the aircraft will be decoupled from the airship and returned to earth, much like a mini-space shuttle.
The project is now in a key phase. Solar cells are being tested at an altitude of 30 kilometres, and final preparations are underway for the launch of the first airship into the stratosphere. The entire system should be ready for testing a year from now.
The potential is enormous if Stratxx manages to be the first to fly with this new technology. About 20 Haps would be required to cover Europe alone while Africa would need twice as many.
The X station will go to an altitude of 21 kilometres – nine more than civilian aircraft are permitted. This height is needed to place the antenna stations above the jet stream where winds are moderate.
Satellites are stationed from 500 to 36,000 kilometres above earth.
An X station can service an area of about 1,000 kilometres in diameter. X stations can also exchange data between themselves.
In addition to the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology at Zurich and Lausanne and Ruag, participants in the project include Neuchâtel University.
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