Imagine being able to establish emergency communications and internet services for local populations immediately after a disaster or monitor criminal activities, such as illicit maritime trafficking, without any interruptions for weeks or months?
For the past several years, U.S. Southern Command’s (SOUTHCOM) Science, Technology, and Innovation Division has been assessing renewable energy powered platforms that greatly improve both communications and interoperability with partner nations’ military and law enforcement agencies.
Among the platforms that are undergoing testing are stratospheric balloon systems and solar powered aircraft that can carry sensors and radios for supporting various critical military capabilities.
One such project entitled COLDSTAR which is a congressionally approved Joint Capability Technology Demonstration (JCTD) has successfully developed a high- altitude communications and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) architecture that could be used to provide imagery and emergency communications to first responders in support of international Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) efforts.
William Scott, COLDSTAR oversight executive in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering (OUSD R&E), stated that “COLDSTAR established the technical foundation and framework necessary to provide a low cost, persistent, autonomous, and environmentally friendly Command, Control, Communication, and Computer Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) capability to our warfighters. In addition, Autonomous Maritime Patrol Aircraft (AMPA) JCTD holds the promise of further reducing the departments carbon emissions.”
Operating in the stratosphere
Stratospheric balloons operate twice as high as commercial passenger jets at altitudes of 70,000 feet or more. Typically, these balloons are filled with helium or hydrogen. As the balloon rises, the gas inside expands because the atmospheric pressure surrounding the balloon drops. In addition, the balloon can control its altitude by using the surrounding air as ballast. This precise altitude control coupled with advanced algorithms and machine learning allows the balloon to navigate across the globe using stratospheric wind currents.
“COLDSTAR JCTD is a technical success, and its proven technology can reduce the significant burden on the requirements of DOD’s traditional ISR aircraft inventory,” said Air Force Lieutenant General Andrew Croft, SOUTHCOM’s deputy commander. “In Latin America and the Caribbean, the tyranny of distance is a major operational challenge; therefore, we must continue to look at new and innovative technologies to maximize persistence downrange while at the same time reducing operational costs.”
Along with stratospheric balloons, OUSD(R&E) and SOUTHCOM have also been advancing the development of solar powered aircraft as part of an overall strategy to shift the U.S. Department of Defense to more environmentally friendly and renewable energy sources. These unmanned aerial systems (UAS) only require sunlight to remain aloft for weeks at a time. One such aircraft — the Solar Impulse — successfully flew around the world in 2016 without having to refuel. It is now being redesigned to employ sensors and radios for military missions especially in remote areas thousands of miles away from CONUS.
“We are testing both high-altitude balloons and UAS that are solar powered and can remain on station for weeks to months,” said Sarah Hernandez, JCTD operational manager at SOUTHCOM. “This shall provide SOUTHCOM with tactical persistence while at the same time reducing carbon emissions.”
These cutting-edge technologies will soon be deployed on missions around the globe. By working side-by-side with strong interagency and partner nations, together we’ll be to improve regional domain awareness and prevent illegal activities that deplete natural resources and challenge our shared democratic values.