America’s First Broadband Blimp?

The Wabash Heartland Innovation Network (WHIN) announced plans to launch an aerostat blimp as part of its mission to monitor IoT sensors for digital agriculture and next-generation manufacturing in a 10-state region of Indiana. The project will be managed by RTO Wireless.

WHIN is headquartered in West Lafayette, Indiana. The group is a consortium of ten counties that is supported by the Lilly Endowment and draws on expertise from Purdue University and Ivy Tech, the local community college. The consortium is a scientific, educational, and charitable 501(c)(3) that is supported by growers, manufacturers, and tech partners such as Wabash National, Nucor, AgriNovus, Demeter, Myers Spring, and Oerlikon.

The concept behind WHIN is to deploy LoRaWAN technology to communicate with Internet of Things sensors for digital agriculture and manufacturing. LoRaWAN technology uses low-power frequency that can cover a large area with a tall enough transmitter. LoRaWAN technology uses a unique spread spectrum technology that is ideal for communicating with IoT sensors, which only transmit data intermittently. A single LoRaWan radio is theoretically able to communicate with huge numbers of sensors. One of the biggest promises of the technology is that it can enable low-power and inexpensive sensors – something that is a challenge if using cellular or other wireless technologies.

The blimp will be tethered to the ground, making it an aerostat. Aerostat blimps are helium-filled and carry the needed electronics to power the LoRaWAN technology and CMRS radios. The press release says the first blimp will hover around 1,000 feet above ground level, which should provide line-of-sight to a large portion of the WHIN territory. The tether includes a power connection to a ground station to operate the electronics as well as a fiber optic cable to carry data traffic to and from the blimp electronics.

This is a creative solution for providing farm sensors. A blimp stationed at 1,000 feet or higher will cover a much larger agricultural footprint than putting the transmitters on much shorter rural cellular towers. Using one tower to communicate with huge numbers of sensors is needed to make the use of farm sensors affordable.

The IoT devices must be designed to communicate at the frequency and using the same technology as the transmitter. Agricultural monitoring is done today with a hodgepodge of technologies. Dairy, hog, and chicken farmers often deploy a local WiFi network since they are usually monitoring a fairly small footprint. There are sensors today that can be read using cellular technology – but one of the big hurdles for cellular companies capturing this market is the ability to cover the huge swaths of farmland. I think one of the drivers behind the FCC’s deferred 5G grant program was to add cellular towers in remote farmlands.

The blimp launch will also test the idea of providing wireless connections for rural broadband. Fixed wireless electronics are typically installed on towers – and the taller the tower, the better for establishing line-of-sight communications with customers. Putting radios at 1,000 feet is five to seven times higher than the normal fixed wireless radio deployment.

There will technology issues with establishing a fixed broadband link since a blimp will move around with the winds. One of the features that enable maximum bandwidth from a normal fixed wireless deployment is that the electronics are fixed in place at both ends, enabling a focused beam between the tower and a customer. It will be interesting to hear how WHIN handles the non-stationary transmitter on the blimp.

If this is deployment is successful we might see similar blimps appearing all over farming communities. We now know that the use of agricultural sensors can improve farm yields while better protecting the environment by reducing the amount of chemicals and insecticides used in farming. What’s been lacking is a platform and system for affordably monitoring sensors.

3 thoughts on “America’s First Broadband Blimp?

  1. The blimp is unnecessary. LoraWAN base stations are very inexpensive to deploy, the signal goes through trees and the coverage area from fixed wireless towers is more than adequate to cover very large areas.

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