Stratospheric balloons are routinely used for Earth imaging and environmental monitoring in the upper atmosphere. The balloons are often enormous in size — several hundred feet —and when inflated could engulf an entire football stadium. Urban Sky, a Denver-based stratospheric technology and remote sensing startup, has miniaturized the technology for collecting images and data of the Earth by developing small stratospheric balloons.
The company, founded in 2019 by two engineers, Andrew Antonio, CEO, and Jared Leidich, CTO, has developed a far smaller balloon system called “Microballoons” carrying a small imaging payload. They aim to deliver broad-area, high-resolution aerial imagery and wildfire monitoring at costs drastically less than satellites, aircraft, or drones.
“Our microballoons are launched by one operator,” said CTO Leidich, who holds a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Colorado at Boulder and is a licensed professional engineer. “The operator will drive to the site in the morning to launch the balloon and the same person can be at the landing site when it comes down to retrieve it. In that span, we can collect a lot of images and data.” Both the payload and the balloon are recovered at the end of each flight for reuse.
Mobile deployment is one of the biggest advantages Urban Sky offers over existing Earth-imaging technologies. “When a balloon gets that big it must be launched from a fixed infrastructure including cranes and gigantic tiedowns — and that means you can only launch from one or two places. You can’t decide where it ends up in the sky,” explained Leidich, who through his projects has launched over 120 stratospheric balloons, including the heaviest balloon systems ever flown. “Our balloon is small enough that we can launch it easily, which allows us to place the balloon over a specific point on the ground by deciding where we want it.”
Traditionally, stratospheric balloons were rarely used to monitor the Earth because these are difficult to place, as you can’t intentionally decide exactly where you want them to be. Now the equipment is becoming smaller and lighter.
By making the system small enough that they can be launched remotely, the UrbanSky team has unlocked a new potential to uniquely place them and use them for remote sensing and environmental monitoring. According to the company, the balloons can sit anywhere between 17 and 21 kilometers high, staying stable within tens of meters.
Most of UrbanSky’s current customers are in the environmental monitoring, utilities, and insurance spaces. Leidich envisions the microballoons 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. Pricing for Urban Sky imagery starts at $6/sq km.
“There have been a lot of wildfires in Western Denver, so one of our customers is looking for segmentation and silt. For something like this, you need lots of coverage, higher resolution, and lower cost, so our technology fits,” said Leidich.
Currently operating in Colorado, Texas, New Mexico, Wyoming, and Nebraska, UrbanSky plans to expand across the United States in the near future. “We are working on a second sensor system with infrared sensors and real-time capability that’s intended for mapping wildfires in real time. The next market we are looking toward is being able to map wildfires while they are happening and be a resource for firefighters and city planners,” said Leidich.
This article was written by Chitra Sethi, Director, Editorial and Digital Content Strategy, SAE Media Group. For more information, visit www.urbansky.com .