Science for Brazil (Reino Unido)

Balloons bring ‘internet of things’ to remote areas

Publicado em 20 setembro 2017


Captive balloons tethered around 200m above ground transmitting broadband signals are a cost-effective solution for areas without internet coverage – whether due to natural disasters in developing nations, remoteness or just low population density.

Internet-based telemetry in uninhabited areas (or the ‘internet of things’) is vital for many activities – including agribusiness and forestry, mining or geology, and remote monitoring of power lines. And even in densely populated areas, the promise of aerial internet that dispenses with costly ground installations is so attractive that it’s luring giants like Facebook and Google to invest heavily in their own mobile blimps cruising the upper atmosphere, doing the work of satellites on the cheap.

Balloons have been used as observation platforms ever since the American Civil War, so the technology is hardly innovative when used for surveillance: their use is well-developed in Israel, the US and Europe. Yet for public security at big sporting events, tethered balloons with observation cameras can provide a cost-effective alternative to unmanned drones.

These are the markets being pursued by the young Brazilian company Altave, based in São José dos Campos.

Altave – which now sells product to the Brazilian government and private sector, specialising in the supply of broadband internet services in remote rural locations – depended for its start-up and development on PIPE financing.

It’s now selling Brazilian-made captive balloons at home and abroad: during the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup and the 2016 Rio Olympics, Altave provided the security services with tethered balloon surveillance at sporting sites such as Rio’s Maracana stadium, netting R$24.5 million. It also sells to private security companies.

The company has been hired to provide 50 km-radius internet-assisted remote inspection of power lines in areas not suitable for drones, and now has links with European provider Airstar Aerospace helping it sell its internet platform solution.

You can see a video about Altave made by FAPESP, the window  below:

Altave balloons – which measure from 3-7m in diameter – carrying internet repeater stations or monitoring cameras are so simple, they can be launched by a single operative and then controlled remotely. They can carry an instrument payload of five to 35 kgs.

Now, however, the company is seeking to evolve from simple low-level fixed aerostats to what it calls an “autonomous airship capable of tethered flight with its own on-board control system.”

And it is expanding overseas in attempts to capture a share of what by 20201 will be a US$11 billion global market: Altave has a distribution deal with Airstar Aerospace of France to sell its products.

At every stage of its development since 2010, when Altave was first set it was set up by young aeronautical engineering graduates fresh from the Advanced Technology Institute in São José dos Campos, the company depended completely on research grants from the PIPE programme. It has been a beneficiary of ten grants (6 ongoing) covering PIPE Phase 1, Phase 2 and Phase 3 (in partnership with FINEP).

The grants range from financing to help research into Commercial and industrial development of multi mission low altitude tethered aerostats, to development of airships and drone-like ‘tethered multicopters’ able to carry a payload of 10kg at 100 altitude. For example, Altave director and shareholder Bruno Avena de Azevedo received a BR$969,000 (US$ 310,000) grant in 2016, following up on a BR$506,000 (US$ 162,000) grant in 2014.

“PIPE made all this possible,” Bruno Avena told an interviewer. “Our business was just nine months old and we had no other funding, so what really kicked off the company was getting a PIPE grant to do proof of concept,” he added, noting that his project had also received support from federal agency CNPq.

You can find out more about Altave’s financial support from FAPESP by accessing the Foundation’s publicly-available grant funding database here.

Portuguese readers can find a detailed magazine article about Altave balloons and the use of drones by Brazilian journalist Yuri Vasconcelos by clicking here.