The ideal battlefield network is so ever-present as to be unnoticeable. While the ubiquity of coverage people expect in civilian spaces is unlikely to be matched in combat, new communications tools hope to extend that power to military. One such device is the Helikite aerostat.
The Helikite is a combination helium balloon and kite, in which both parts work together to provide stability and lift. Held in place by a tether, the Helikite can lift a payload to an altitude of up to 7,000 feet. Payloads range from video cameras to communications relays. The British and U.S. militaries have tested military Helikites with cameras, some even with targeting equipment as well.
In September 2019, NATO tested the Helikites as part of the Recognized Environmental Picture (Maritime Unmanned Systems) (REP(MUS)) exercise in Portugal.
For REP(MUS), the Helikites carried mobile ad-hoc network relays, expanding the range of connection between human operators and piloted drones, like the Puma, which streamed video to Portuguese marines as they performed a beach storming exercise. In addition, the Helikites provided a communications link to uncrewed surface vessels, helping extend the range at which the robots could be controlled and commanded.
Lighter-than-air craft have a long history of military use, though the vulnerabilities of a flying bag of gas are not to be discounted. Consider, for the moment, the Goodyear Inflatoplane, a Cold War oddity of a soft-body aircraft designed primarily as a means to help downed pilots fly back home to freedom. Despite testing proving that the unique pressurization of the Infaloplane’s body could maintain integrity even when punctured six times by .30 caliber bullets, the perception remained that it was an aircraft which could be disabled by a single well-placed shot from a bow-and-arrow.
Without the safety of an onboard pilot to worry about, the helikite can match a degree of expendability to its light body and useful payload.
“These Helikites can lift surveillance equipment above the range of small arms fire,” write Helikite makers Airborne Communications Ltd, “effectively making Helikites unassailable to most common threats.”
When it comes to designing systems for the future of warfare, a repurposing of old physical frames with new technological payloads can go a long way to delivering that major technological triumph: a communications network so durable, the people using it barely have to think about it not existing.
Kelsey Atherton blogs about military technology for C4ISRNET, Fifth Domain, Defense News, and Military Times. He previously wrote for Popular Science, and also created, solicited, and edited content for a group blog on political science fiction and international security.