November 27, 2014

Elyria
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Sky is the limit

Students work on $7M unmanned blimp
SANDUSKY — One part blimp and 100 parts technology, the aerostat is among the latest research projects playing out at NASA’s Plum Brook Station in Sandusky, a 6,400-acre facility chock-full of mystery.

And a few Lorain County Community College graduates are a part of it.

Carl Sullenberger/CHRONICLE
T.J. Zmina, of Elyria, Jim Ward, of Avon, and Laura Survante, of Amherst, stand under the aerostat during its high-altitude test on Monday.

Early Monday, LCCC grads Laura Survante, 26, T.J. Zmina, 22, and Jim  Ward, 42, who are now students at The University of Akron, gathered just outside the shadow of a 75-foot-long blimp that hovered overhead.

Around them were official-looking folks who seemed immensely interested in the project: U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Toledo, some people from NASA, a few guys from the Army, a few university and college professors, and a hodge-podge of other technically minded people. Survante looked at the crowd that had gathered for the project’s official kickoff and wondered if this was one of those moments she’d look back and say, “Yeah, I was part of that.”

“We’re dealing with all the small things right now, but you have to take a step back and look at the big picture once in a while,” Survante said. “It’s a fantastic opportunity to work with some of the smartest guys in the industry.”

That is no overstatement.

Researchers from the Army, NASA, three universities and a cadre of private companies are involved in the aerostat project, an undertaking for which Kaptur has earmarked about $7 million over the next few years.

The concept is simple: Float a blimp 60,000 to 100,000 feet up in the Earth’s stratosphere — about 11 to 18 miles high — and equip it with cutting-edge video surveillance and communications technology.

The project’s execution is proving more challenging and is starting with baby steps: Float it at 1,000 feet to test its payload and equipment, then gradually increase its altitude.

Ultimately, researches are hoping to equip the aerostat with any manner of technological wonder — infrared and thermal-imaging cameras, high-resolution cameras, high-performance communication and wireless technologies and more — capable of relaying real-time information to remote areas of the Earth.

“We want to take the technology and put it in low-earth orbit,” said University of Akron network engineering professor Doug Huber, who connected Survante, Zmira and Ward with Western DataCom, a Westlake-based company providing the manpower and equipment for the project’s wireless and communications aspects. 

The LCCC graduates are working as interns for Western DataCom.

If the aerostat project works as planned, researchers say it could revolutionize the way human beings monitor and respond to just about any conceivable event: natural or environmental disasters, wars, police and fire emergencies, to name just a few.

The wide range of possible aerostat applications has countless agencies involved in the project: The U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Battle Lab, NASA, universities in Cincinnati, Toledo and Akron, Lorain County Community College and Ohio Aerospace Institute.

“The needs of an Army commander overseas are very similar to the needs of a first responder here in Ohio,” said Jeff Faunce, of the Missile Defense Battle Lab.

In sum, the aerostat project will allow people to “see things and communicate” at an entirely new level, Faunce said.
For instance, a soldier in Iraq could tap into an aerostat’s video surveillance and see real-time video of what lies just beyond the next hill.  Huber said it’s one of those technologies that people simply assume the U.S. already has but simply does not exist to date.

Comparably, a satellite can provide images and information only at certain times of the day, and the resolution isn’t on par with what an aerostat could provide, Huber said.

Contact Shawn Foucher at 653-6255 or sfoucher@chroniclet.com.

Blimp potential
Environment:
Researchers can use infrared photography and live video to monitor and record trends in ice flow, algae flows in Lake Erie, watershed trends and other environmental dynamics relating to issues such as global warming and flooding. Researchers also can determine which agricultural crops are healthy by using infrared cameras showing healthy, hydrated crops in red hues and dried crops in blue.
Telemedicine:
Doctors could tap into an aerostat’s communication system and relay real-time images and video from remote areas of the Earth, such as Third World countries. The information could be relayed to specialists in other parts of the world, allowing them to assist — in real-time — people who are working in the field but lack the immediate knowledge needed to provide adequate assistance.
Military:
An aerostat could provide soldiers with real-time images or video surveillance of surrounding areas, enabling them to view battle information on the ground using handheld devices, computers or other devices.
Emergency:
Real-time video or photo surveillance of incidents such as natural disaster, acts of terrorism, traffic. For example, police dispatchers could tap into aerostats to receive live video feeds of a flooded area, telling emergency crews how to negotiate the quickest route to an emergency scene.
Communications:
High-speed wireless networks and communications systems capable of transmitting to wider areas with less interference; also would provide a “persistent presence” for communications and monitoring, rather than the sporadic and lower-resolution imaging offered by satellites. 
Other examples:
Mapping and topography; Coast Guard tracking sea vessels; monitoring security at nuclear facilities; forest fires; monitoring agricultural problems such as emerald ash borer.