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UK to trial high-altitude intelligence balloons from SNC

Project Aether high altitude balloon proposal by Sierra Nevada
Photo: SNC

The UK defense ministry has awarded Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) a contract to demonstrate high altitude balloons for stratospheric communications and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR).

The UK is trialing the use of uncrewed platforms to obtain global, persistent and uninterrupted ISR as part of the Project Aether assessment phase.

Project Aether is an undertaking worth £100 million (approx. $121 million) aimed at identifying suitable systems that could perform ultra-persistent wide area communications with ISR using stratospheric systems that can be “rapidly maneuvered to an area of interest that is anywhere in the world.”

The defense ministry expects the system to be capable of targeting geolocations anywhere in the world and offer immediately available and exploitable data using a range of existing resources.

“SNC has a long history of rapid development, integration and worldwide deployment of C5ISR systems across all domain environments,” said Tim Owings, executive vice president of SNC’s Mission Solutions & Technologies (MST) business area. “We are very pleased to demonstrate SNC’s legacy of success with these types of autonomous systems to the MOD and continue expanding our footprint within the UK.”

A team comprising its UK subsidiary, Sierra Nevada Corporation Mission Systems UK (SNC MS UK), World View Enterprises, and Digital Receiver Technology is expected to undertake the first demonstration flight later this year.

SNC will perform the platform and payload integration work from its Fayetteville, North Carolina facility.

“SNC’s mature High-Altitude Balloon (HAB) out performs other platforms with its ability to integrate larger payloads and recover those payloads much more quickly,” said Josh Walsh, vice president of programs for SNC’s MST business area. “Balloons offer higher operational altitudes than aircraft and can provide longer observing times at much lower size, weight, power and cost than traditional ISR platforms.”

The UK is joined by the US and Australia in assessing balloons for intelligence gathering. Last year, the US Army tested this technology in Norway during an exercise while Australia performed first high altitude balloon launch trials in 2020.