The aerostat has been floating around the skies west of Reynolds in a bean field owned by Ron and Nancy Seymour at 1254 West 50 North. Staff photo by Tammy Jones
The aerostat has been floating around the skies west of Reynolds in a bean field owned by Ron and Nancy Seymour at 1254 West 50 North. Staff photo by Tammy Jones
REYNOLDS — Wabash Heartland Innovation Network (WHIN) has announced the development of the first telecommunication aerostat to be used in the United States for rural connectivity.

The aerostat, which resembles a small-scale white blimp, has been floating around the skies west of Reynolds in a five-acre enclosure in the corner of a bean field owned by Ron and Nancy Seymour at 1254 West 50 North.

The aerostat, or tethered aerodynamic balloon, was invented in France in the 1700s, and has been utilized in the United States since the Civil War when they were used as observation platforms. It ideally only requires a half-acre of land and Kevlar cable to anchor it which makes it much smaller and taller than a traditional tower used for connectivity.

The aerostat will potentially provide broadband speeds for up to 20 miles from the site and low-power transmission for up to 50 miles. The low-power technology will compliment WHIN’s terrestrial sensor network of more than 10 towers throughout the region which will be coming soon.

Once established, the WHIN network will allow for millions of messages per day to flow through sensors in agricultural fields and manufacturing facilities. This will reduce cost and increase the speed of internet usage.

“On March 31, 1880, Wabash, Indiana, became the ‘First Electrically Lighted City in the World’ and now we want north-central Indiana to be the first in the country again to 'turn the lights on' of rural broadband using aerial innovation,” said Alivia Roberts, marketing and communications manager at WHIN. “It took two generations of farmers in the rural parts of the Midwest to choose to adopt electricity about 100 years ago. We are still suffering in our country from the socio-economic divide caused by this lapse.

"There is another technology emerging with the same potential to change the world, data. In a similar way, the urban centers are already beginning to receive data and digital communication capabilities like broadband, and the rural areas are lagging behind, not just in streaming video, but in more socio-economic drivers like online education and online jobs as well.”

Roberts said WHIN focuses on the region’s under-investment in digitalization in industry.

"Digitalization is the adoption of digital technology through things like IoT. The term 'Internet of Things' (IoT) refers to everything that is the internet (I) as we know it, applied to the physical world (T) as a user. It’s input/output devices to connect users to data, and all that data is networked to single location in the cloud where it can be analyzed to help those users make better decisions,” she said. “We do this by attracting technology providers, then working with them to lower the risk for our alliance members to try out their innovations. And in the process all the data gets sent back to WHIN to be organized and made available for research so more technology providers can be created. The research data is what we call our Living Lab.”

WHIN is an innovative nonprofit organization enabled by a grant from Lilly Endowment devoted to making the 10-county Wabash Heartland region of north-central Indiana the global epicenter of digital agriculture and next-generation manufacturing empowered by smart IoT technology. However, it’s challenging to deploy a wireless IoT sensor network in rural Indiana where the internet-connected infrastructure is sometimes sparse or the bandwidth too slow. WHIN exists to keep what happened with electricity adoption from happening again with data adoption in rural America.

The aerostat offers several benefits due to its uninterrupted vertical location of 1,500-2,500 feet up which provides a larger propagation map, and can help solve the line-of-site problem. With antenna heights up to 2,000 feet above ground, it can provide more coverage than a typical cell tower, leading to lower total network costs.

Also, fully automated controls and nonstop remote monitoring ensure reliable operations.

“AeroSite technology is the result of six years of development by WHIN partner, RTO Wireless,” Roberts said. “We have spent over a year developing this technology with the help of RTO Wireless out of Massachusetts. All certifications required have also been obtained, and we are permitted to fly by the FAA with flight operations supervised by Grissom ARB and O’Hare International Airport.”

The services will be offered in partnership with regional internet service providers and will cover the majority of the 10-county WHIN region. Broadband speeds are expected to be similar to 5G in most areas.
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