CAMP LEJEUNE, NC --
“Any station this net, any station this net, this is echo-five-bravo, radio check, over.”
Translation: “Can you hear me now?”
This was the theme as Marines from 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit communications section honed their skills during a lofted communications exercise using SkySat, which merges modern high-tech communications equipment with technology that is hundreds of years old: balloons. The only difference is these balloons are filled with helium, made of latex and are about 13 feet in diameter when inflated.
“SkySat is a mature technology. However, we are integrating additional capabilities, such as imaging, aerial photography and surveys,” said Maj. Roman Vitkovitsky, the MEU's communications officer. “The lofted communications exercise allows us to take receipt of new equipment, demonstrate interoperability and develop (standard operating procedures) to advise us in employment.”
Two teams of communicators were sent approximately 200 miles in opposite directions from Camp Lejeune. One team drove to Charleston, S.C. and the other to Richmond., Va. to test the equipment’s capabilities.
By floating relay equipment as high as 100,000 feet on a balloon, SkySat can extend the range of military radios from a traditional four miles up to hundreds of miles and allows communicators to overcome terrain features like trees, buildings and mountains.
This isn’t the typical balloon on a string. The difference is this string can be extended up to 600 feet and is strong enough to withstand 40 to 50 knot winds.
The non-tethered balloon’s payload is expendable, according to Master Sgt. John Dick, communications chief for the MEU. Controllers on the ground can command the balloon to release the communications equipment, which floats to the ground by parachute. No secret or classified equipment is housed in the payload, so it doesn't have to be recovered after deployment. If it is recovered, it can be sent back to the manufacturer to be reset for future use.
Alternatively, the tethered design allows the balloon to be pulled back to a trailer and the payload retrieved.
“The tethered version was designed to be self contained. (The trailer) has its own power, helium, and the ability to deploy and retract (the balloon,)” said Rob Gribble, with Integrated System Solutions, the company who designed the trailer and wench system. “The tethered system also allows for power to be supplied to its payload.”
The tethered balloon can stay up for about 24 hours on three-and-a-half helium tanks.
It just needs to be pulled down once a day to add helium, said Kevin Hess, who is with Aerial Products, the balloon developers.
“Communications is the key to success on the battlefield,” said Col. Mark Desens, commanding officer, 26th MEU. “This is an asset that improves command and control by minimizing the impact from factors such as terrain, weather, and distance. The SkySat will improve our mission effectiveness and have a profound effect on our future operations.”