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Floating a New Idea
|A balloon being launched in Piedmont, Oklahoma.|
Mr. Knoblach also dismisses another potential hazard: Airplanes crashing into balloons. He points out that Space Data's balloons are similar in design to weather balloons, about 1,800 of which are launched world-wide every day without problems.
According to a Federal Aviation Administration official, there are no records of passenger jets colliding with balloons in the U.S. The engines of a commercial jet are designed to withstand the ingestion of an eight-pound bird, the FAA says. (The payload on a Space Data balloon weighs six pounds.)
Google believes balloons like these could radically change the economics of offering cellphone and Internet services in out-of-the-way areas, according to people familiar with its thinking. The company is among the registered bidders for a big chunk of radio spectrum at a government auction currently under way in Washington.
At Space Data's command center in Chandler, engineers track their 10 balloons on a wall-mounted electronic map. Balloons move slowly across Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Arizona, where Space Data sells wireless services used by truckers to track their fleet. Overlapping rings on the map demarcate the coverage area of each balloon's transceiver.
When a balloon approaches the end of its useful life, technicians send a signal to separate it from its electronic payload, which parachutes to earth. The balloons eventually burst into "confetti" from the low air pressure, Mr. Knoblach says.
The environmental ramifications of the resulting shower of latex balloon scraps are complex. Some environmentalists argue balloons can be fatal to turtles, fish and whales, which mistake floating latex for jellyfish or other edible sea life. Several states, including Florida and Virginia, restrict balloon launches.
Dale Florio, a spokesman for the Balloon Council, a trade group for balloon makers, says latex balloons biodegrade "at the rate of an oak leaf that falls from a tree."
Mr. Knoblach says his operation was reviewed by more than a dozen federal agencies, which found no significant environmental impact. Some agencies even consider it a net benefit, he says: The balloons replace tall cellphone towers, which are blamed for killing a significant number of migratory birds that crash into them.
While the balloons are cheap and disposable at $50 a pop, the transceivers they carry are worth about $1,500. Once a transceiver is released from its balloon to parachute back to earth, there's no way to predict where it will land. So Space Data has hired 20 hobbyists with GPS devices to track them down.
Recovery missions can get intense. Workers have had to pluck transceivers out of trees in Louisiana, rappel down rocky cliffs in Arizona, trudge through swamps and kayak across ponds. Space Data pays them $100 per transceiver recovered.
"These things can fall anywhere," says Chip Kyner of San Antonio, who once hiked seven miles before finding the transmitter he was looking for. The final mile was in pitch darkness.
"It wasn't worth the $100," he says, "but it's a neat story."
Write to Amol Sharma at email@example.com