Robotic balloons could provide high resolution images for many urban applications


Cities face a wide range of environmental challenges, from dealing with day-to-day issues such as dealing with potholes and ensuring water quality, to mitigating climate change and managing more frequent natural disasters. And on the transportation front, upcoming technologies such as VTOL aircraft and robotic drones will require cities to actively manage their airspace.

Rema Matevosyan, CEO and Co-Founder, Near Space Labs

Dan Zukowski/Dive into smart cities

A Brooklyn-based startup wants to help cities solve these problems with high-resolution, high-altitude imagery collected by an autonomous device attached to a small weather balloon.

Smart Cities Dive spoke with Rema Matevosyan, CEO and Co-Founder of Near space labsto learn more about the technology and how cities can use it to monitor and address these challenges.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

DIVING INTO SMART CITIES: What is Near Space Labs?

REMA MATEVOSIAN: Near Space Labs is an Earth imaging company. Our mission is to make high-resolution, highly up-to-date information about our changing planet accessible to everyone. We believe that high quality Earth imagery will be at the epicenter of how we continue to build our cities with increasing risks of disaster and climate change.

How it works?

We fly balloons to the stratosphere. It’s a robotic device called Swifty that we attach to a balloon, and then there’s technology that controls and guides the robot. It takes very high resolution photos of the planet at 60,000 feet.

We can launch at any time of the day. The Swifty is a very small device that comes in a suitcase and works right out of the box with just the flick of a switch.

Where will your balloons fly and how often can they create images?

We are currently scaling up [serve] the 1,200 most urbanized areas in the United States. Our basic coverage is quarterly, but we are able to [capture images] up to several times a day for certain seasonal applications and for certain periods when our customers need this high image rate.

Photo of near-space laboratories

Near the Space Labs “Swifty” balloon

Permission granted by Near Space Labs

How can cities use this technology?

We see so many opportunities to serve governments: public works, water utilities, transportation departments, fire departments. The proliferation of vegetation and power lines in cities are important. Another problem concerns gas pipeline leaks. You can see large patches of dead vegetation around a damaged pipeline. The agility [of the technology] allows us to deploy very quickly in the event of catastrophic events.

What future applications do you see for this technology?

We are very actively looking at applications such as autonomous driving and the next generation of navigation systems. We see a holistic solution to self-driving where you would have updated maps and the bird’s eye view updated very frequently. This will give information to the car, and as the car drives, it can also use its own sensors, but it will have better background information.

Organization [urban air mobility] the infrastructure would be interesting [potential application]. It is very clear to me that you need very high resolution and frequently updated information in such a complex ecosystem.

Currently, you provide photographic images. Could your bubbles provide other types of images or data?

Our Swiftys are designed to be plug-and-play, so we can drive different types of sensors. There are many spectral bands: infrared for thermal emission, hyperspectral sensors for greenhouse gases. The thermal is very exciting [because] we can begin to map heat island effects.

What future for Near Space Labs?

Every day people come to us with their specific requests, and it’s fascinating to track what people want to do with affordable data. What if you make that kind of data about the cities and the environment we live in very affordable? And what if you give all that data to all the universities to innovate? We are only scratching the surface.

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