Urban Sky, a Colorado-based company focused on collecting images and data of the Earth using small stratospheric balloons, says it is officially entering commercial operations after three years of operating partly in stealth and raising funding. The company says it is ready to start serving customers with its balloons, which can be deployed from the back of a pickup truck and ascend into the sky in just minutes.
Specifically, the company offers what it calls “microballoons,” high-altitude balloons that can float to the stratosphere carrying a small payload and maintain a constant position over an area. About the size of a Volkswagen bus at launch, these balloons ultimately inflate to be the size of a small car garage in the air. That’s much smaller than a typical stratospheric balloon, which could engulf an entire football stadium when fully inflated.
Urban Sky envisions its technology being used for things like real-time wildfire monitoring, environmental changes, storm-related property damage, and more at a lower cost than comparable satellite imagery. After conducting roughly 50 flight tests, Urban Sky’s founders say they are ready to start deploying their product regularly, offering imagery with resolution of 10 centimeters per pixel. “We’re at a technology maturity level, where if a customer calls us and says, ‘I want imagery over this area in the Rocky Mountain region,’ we can deploy and go get it,” Andrew Antonio, co-founder and CEO of Urban Sky, tells The Verge.
The company’s origins can be traced back to a program called StratEx, a plan hatched by former Google executive Alan Eustace which resulted in him performing the world’s highest skydive from underneath a stratospheric balloon. Antonio and Urban Sky co-founder Jared Leidich worked on the project together, which first introduced them to stratospheric balloons. During development, the team would often fly smaller balloons equipped with GoPros next to the more massive balloons for monitoring.
“We were launching these really small balloons next to these enormous balloons,” Leidich says. “I kind of saw this side-by-side comparison of what it’s like to launch a balloon [with a] payload the size of a shoe box, and what it’s like to launch a balloon [with a payload] that’s the size of a person or the size of a car.”
Antonio and Leidich eventually moved on to World View, a company aimed at using larger stratospheric balloons for Earth monitoring and eventually sending tourists to the stratosphere on leisurely joyrides. Ultimately the pair broke away to form their own high-altitude balloon company with the goal of mimicking the trajectory of the satellite industry, where payloads have miniaturized over the last couple of decades. Companies like Planet and Spire have developed entire constellations for Earth imaging and monitoring using CubeSats, small standardized satellites about the size of a shoebox. With Urban Sky, they wanted to do the same for the stratosphere.
But they immediately ran into technical challenges, according to Leidich. “We thought it was going to be a lot easier than it was,” he says. “We thought that we could just sort of make everything smaller, and it would work. And initially, it did not work.” To maintain a stable position in the sky, stratospheric balloons rely on ducting systems that let gas out of the balloon at altitude. Shrinking that system down turned out to be incredibly difficult, and a lot of the company’s early balloons descended prematurely. They also experimented with the shape of the balloon to make sure it floated and stabilized as they wanted. And plenty of work focused on miniaturizing the optical sensing equipment so that it could fit into a payload the size of a shoebox.
They eventually came up with their final microballoon product, which can carry imaging and data-collecting payloads weighing no more than six pounds. The balloons can sit anywhere between 17 and 21 kilometers high, staying stable within tens of meters, according to Urban Sky. The company says that customers need to give roughly 24 hours’ notice to plan for a dedicated mission, which is also dependent on good weather. One mission typically will last between four to seven hours. When the mission is over, the balloons can be retrieved and used again, which isn’t always the case for stratospheric balloons.
Ultimately, Urban Sky wants to be very nimble with its system, launching more and more frequently as they move ahead. “We want to experiment with higher refresh rates,” Antonio says.
Because these balloons are meant to be retrieved, there are some limitations on where they can be deployed. Urban Sky doesn’t plan to launch over areas of international conflict, for example. But the company says the balloons are capable of launching anywhere from land, with plans to eventually launch from over water. Right now, they’re operating in Colorado, Texas, New Mexico, Wyoming, and Nebraska, with plans to expand throughout the US. Urban Sky isn’t releasing what it costs to operate its system but says that pricing for its imagery starts at $6 per square kilometer.
They’re aiming to be about five to 10 times cheaper than the current average cost for Earth imaging and data collection. However, Urban Sky doesn’t plan on acting as a replacement for satellite imagery but as a lower-cost option for very specific use cases.
“We sit between these really expensive, but really high-resolution manned aircraft imaging systems and these really broad area coverage, but lower resolution and bandwidth-limited satellite systems that are really expensive,” Antonio says.