The U.S. Air Force has awarded a $49 million contract to a Chandler-based company to provide a near space communications system to improve battlefield communications.
Space Data Corp. will receive the five-year contract and expand its operation and work force to accommodate the additional work, said Tim Ayers, company spokesman. This is the biggest contract the company has ever received, he said.
“We’ve been working with the Air Force Battle Lab for about two years,” he said. “We had an earlier contract for testing that was $1.4 million. This will be the first contract for goods and services.”
Near space is defined as 65,000 to 135,000 feet above Earth, higher than airplanes fly, but lower than satellites.
“It is a low-level satellite except that it doesn’t circle the Earth and it’s not stationary,” Ayers said. “The winds at that altitude near space are very, very steady around the world. They’re about 30 mph, so you can put the balloon up and you know exactly where it’s going to go.”
The contract includes producing balloons and platforms, which are lightweight boxes attached to the balloons that contain the electronics for guidance and control, he said. Space Data also will provide training in using the equipment for military personnel.
“Then the Air Force or Army, Navy or Marines can attach any kind of communications gear that they wish to that system,” Ayers said. “You could launch it in a totally different country and have it providing communications over the target country.”
The balloons can be raised via ballast and lowered via exhaust to catch the winds needed and position them where they are needed, he said.
“Basically the radios that they’re now carrying in Iraq and Afghanistan only have a range of about 10 miles, and what we’re told by the troops that’s the best of times,” Ayers said. “This extends that kind of range to a little bit over 400 miles.”
A commercial version of the technology, called a SkySite platform, has provided digital communications to the energy industry for more than two years. The system operates over the south central and southwestern United States.
“We are gratified and proud that the Air Force selected our technology as the next important improvement in battlefield communications,” Gerald Knoblach, Space Data’s president and CEO, said in a statement.