(Image courtesy of Dushan Hanuska, Creative Commons).

Tests Approved for Morphing Airplanes Into Satellites

Airborne Wireless Networks is trying to breathe life into a clever concept, but might have missed its window to compete with inexpensive satellites from SpaceX and OneWeb.

The Federal Communications Commission is letting a company test wireless networks that would transmit signals over thousands of miles using airplanes as stepping stones. The airplanes could act like a satellite constellation – one that could be landed and upgraded.

Last week, regulators informed the company, Airborne Wireless Networks, that it had been approved to conduct in-flight tests. The firm, which uncovered the concept in a 2001 patent filing, will equip two Boeing airplanes with its technology and test the system in flight near Roswell, New Mexico.

"We intend to create a network between satellites and underwater cable and ground connectivity," said Marius de Mos, Airborne's vice president of technical affairs and development, who also helped develop the first wireless telephone system for commercial airplanes, told Fox Business News in a December interview.

The company is betting that the airborne network, in which each airplane acts like a wireless repeater, will cost significantly less to build than undersea cables or communications satellites. The firm, based in Simi Valley, Calif., aims to sell wholesale access to wireless carriers and telephone companies, which will offer data plans to customers.

The concept might have missed its window to compete with other technologies, though. The original patent called communications satellites "a dying industry" but companies like SpaceX and OneWeb are now pouring billions of dollars into thousands of small, inexpensive satellites to shower signals down from orbit.

Airborne's equipment, which it has kept under tight wraps, has a few advantages. It can be installed on any of the 27,000 airplanes now flying worldwide. "Throughout aviation history, airplanes have only been used to carry passengers and cargo," the patent reads. "Now is the time for these commercial airlines to realize their self-imposed limitation."

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