Networking The Friendly Skies

At any given moment, thousands of jetliners circle the globe. We’re used to it but that doesn’t make it any less of a modern miracle. People traveling for work and pleasure in a way that would have been unimaginable 100 years ago.

But is there even more untapped potential in the skies? Marius de Mos thinks so. When de Mos looks at planes overhead, he doesn’t just see people traveling. He sees a wireless mesh network capable of handling the world’s communications.

The Dutch-born de Mos is vice president for technical affairs and development for Simi Valley, California-based startup Airborne Wireless Network. The company has the audacious idea of replacing communications satellites with the airplanes that fill our skies 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

“It’s a huge undertaking,” de Mos says with a hint of understatement. “We’ve done a lot of preliminary infrastructure work behind the scenes. We’re not just talking about aircraft, but we’re also dealing with governments, the telephone industry globally, ISPs, you name it.”

If Airborne Wireless Network’s plan works, at least three flying aircraft will be connected in a wireless mesh at any given time. These airplanes will create wireless telecommunications “bridges” similar to fiber, but in the sky.

The company touts several advantages over the satellites the world now relies on for telecommunications. With a mesh network there are no single points of failure as there are in most cell-tower and satellite systems. There is always another aircraft, ship or earth-station within range of an aircraft.

Satellites can be disabled or knocked out of orbit by space junk, while the company says an airborne wireless network operates in a “safe and controlled environment,” typically between 20,000 and 40,000 feet—you know, where airplanes fly.

Airborne Wireless Network notes that scientists estimate that by 2025, more than two billion pieces of man-made space junk could be orbiting the earth, jeopardizing the future not only of manned space travel, but also of additional commercial and military satellites as well.

The company points out that as new software becomes available, it can easily update its system without having to launch anything in space. Compare that to satellites which, in most cases, are already obsolete by the time they are launched, and once launched, cannot be upgraded or serviced.

Airborne Wireless Network proved part of its concept last May, de Mos said, flying two Boeing 767 jet liners around Roswell, New Mexico. Engineers met their data and Skype goals for plane to plane, plane to ground and ground to plane transmission, confirming a patent the company holds.

Air Lease Corporation has partnered with Airborne Wireless Network, buying a 10 percent stake in the company, according to de Mos. The Los Angeles-based Air Lease Corporation leases aircraft to more than 80 airlines in 47 countries.

“Their function is to introduce us to airlines and aircraft manufacturers,” de Mos said. “Independent of that we have connections ourselves and have been in dialogue with 15 different large airlines.”

So far, de Mos said, every step the startup has taken has worked.

“Sometimes it takes two or three tries,” he says. “We’re getting there.”