Up, up and away: NetMotion sends a Skype connection into the stratosphere


The curving Earth and the black sky of space serve as the backdrop for NetMotion Software’s balloon-borne contraption, outfitted with an iPad that maintained a Skype connection at an altitude of 85,000 feet. (NetMotion Software via YouTube)

What’s the best way to show off your mobile networking technology? How about demonstrating that the technology can seamlessly switch between WiFi, cellular and satellite data connectivity while it’s flying on a balloon up to a height of 85,000 feet?

That’s the answer that Seattle-based NetMotion Software came up with when it sought to showcase its mobile video conferencing capabilities.

In January, NetMotion engineers lashed an Apple iPad and an array of webcams, networking equipment and GPS trackers to a flightworthy frame, and attached the frame to a weather balloon. They set up a Skype video connection to a Microsoft Surface Book sitting in the back of their car. Then they let the contraption fly, fly away from their launch site at Mountains Edge Regional Park in Las Vegas.

Thanks to the NetMotion Mobility software installed on the iPad, the Skype connection switched smoothly from the team’s personal WiFi hotspot to the iPad’s cellular LTE link at a height of 500 feet.

“Typically a cell connection only goes up to 9,000 feet, but with Mobility we were able to go much further,” Marisa Smolka, senior marketing manager at NetMotion Software,. wrote in a summary of the experiment. “At 12,500 feet we switched from LTE to our satellite connection with our Iridium Go hotspot, which kept us connected up to 76,000 feet. … The call had a few blips or small pauses, but maintained a solid connection until we got to 76,000 feet.”

The Skype connection cut out entirely at 85,000 feet, but the platform kept rising until just past 100,000 feet. Then the balloon popped, and the platform plummeted.

During the hourlong flight, the winds took NetMotion’s contraption 95 miles to the east. It took until long after dark for Smolka and her teammates to locate the wreckage, near Dolan Springs in Arizona. But the ruggedized iPad was still about as solid as the Skype connection had been.

NetMotion’s experiment was judged a success, but Smolka doesn’t recommend trying this at home.

“The precision and attention to detail to launch a weather balloon and recover it was far more than I had expected,” Smolka wrote. “The launch itself is far more complicated than setting up the technology to prove that a Skype call in the atmosphere can work!”

She and her teammates explain how it was done in this “extended cut” video:

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