The Next Big Thing

'Disruptive' Chinese helium balloon technology could beam Wi-fi from near space

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 March, 2015, 4:23pm
UPDATED : Monday, 23 March, 2015, 5:56pm

Shenzhen-based Kuangchi Science is developing a helium balloon capable of floating in near-space which could "disrupt" the telecommunications industry, according to chairman Liu Ruopeng.

Called the "Traveller", Kuangchi's giant, one tonne helium balloon will float in near space, 20 to 100 kilometres above the earth where commercial airliners fly but below orbiting satellites.

The technology "has a number of potential applications, the most obvious being Wi-Fi access," Kuangchi said in a statement.

"The balloons, which are equipped with transponders and fail-safe systems so their movement and altitude can be tracked and managed, provide a similar service to satellites but at a fraction of the cost. The balloons remain in near space with self-generated solar power and are capable of recovery and task reloading."

Google launched a similar technology, Project Loon, in June 2013, aiming to create a "network of balloons traveling on the edge of space, designed to connect people in rural and remote areas, help fill coverage gaps, and bring people back online after disasters."

Liu accompanied Chinese president Xi Jinping in November during a visit to New Zealand, where he signed contracts with Airways New Zealand and Pengxin International to develop the "disruptive" technology.

“The first Traveller trial will be done in the first half of this year,” he said.

The company is also developing flying apparatus equipped with communications facilities which will float around 5 kilometers above the earth. These will function like telecoms towers, but much, much higher and with a greater range, Liu said.

Besides its satellite-like functions, the Traveller could also be used for space travel. “We plan to start experiments with animal travellers by the end of this year," Liu said.

Hong Kong-listed Kuangchi was 2014's top performing stock, with total returns of 2,167 per cent. But some have raised questions about the company's financials, in January shareholder activist David Webb said that Kuangchi "shows all the characteristics of a bubble."

The near space flying apparatus is just a helium balloon with bells on it, Webb said.

Liu admitted that it is important for the company to demonstrate concrete returns. He said the cost of a Traveller unit is only a tenth that of a satellite while offering a similar area of coverage.

“The service can be applied to rescue, tele-communication and travel,” Liu said.

“We will have the experiment project in New Zealand launched soon, and we have a project in Congo that is developing smoothly.” He didn’t elaborate on when profits will be generated.

Unlike giant Chinese technology firms ZTE and Huawei, which frequently meet policy barriers in overseas markets especially in developed economies over cyber security concerns, Liu said he found being a Chinese firm beneficial.

“Backed by China, your ‘win rate’ is higher,” he said. “This is the best moment for Chinese entrepreneurs.”