World View signs up unconventional customer for stratospheric balloon test flight

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WASHINGTON — World View, the company developing high-altitude long-lived balloons for communications, remote sensing and other applications frequently provided by satellites, has found a very different customer for its next test flight.

The Tucson, Arizona-based company announced June 13 that Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), the fast-food chain, will fly a payload on its next “stratollite” balloon test flight, scheduled for no earlier than June 21 from a site east of Tucson. That flight will be the first extended-duration flight of the company’s balloon system, slated to last four days or more.

Taber MacCallum, WorldView co-founder and chief technology officer, said in a conference call with reporters that this flight is intended to be a “shakedown cruise” of the company’s stratollite system, which will allow balloons to operate for months at a time in the stratosphere.

“We’re getting ready to launch this first practical platform in the stratosphere,” he said, noting that the system is designed to carry payloads weighing up to 90 kilograms and using 300 watts of power. “The real game-changer here is the ability to carry a substantial payload, and not just be a little balloon in the stratosphere.”

The company has marketed its stratollite system to support applications ranging from communications to weather radars. The concept has generated interest from the military, with U.S. Navy Adm. Kurt Tidd, head of U.S. Southern Command, calling the concept a “game changer” for surveillance in a speech at the GEOINT 2017 conference earlier this month.

The payload for this test flight, though, will be something very different. KFC, as part of a promotion for a chicken sandwich called the Zinger, will fly what George Felix, director of advertising for the restaurant chain, called a “robotic bucket satellite” on the balloon. That payload will include a sandwich and other items, including cameras.

“We’ve got some fun things planned for each of the days that it’s up there,” he said of the planned four-day flight. Those range from taking a “selfie” of the sandwich against the near-space backdrop to waving a company flag.

Jane Poynter, co-founder and chief executive of World View, said that KFC approached her company about flying a payload like this on its balloons earlier this year. “Certainly, when KFC first brought this to us, we had a good chuckle,” she said. “We though it was really funny. But, after we thought about it for a minute, we also thought it was incredibly cool.”

She called the flight a “really fantastic example” of the capabilities of the platform. “If you can fly a chicken sandwich to the edge of space, it really demonstrates that you can fly just about anything.”

KFC robotic bucket satellite
An artist’s concept of KFC’s “robotic bucket satellite” that will be carried into the stratosphere by a World View balloon. Credit: KFC

The companies declined to disclose the financial terms of the deal, but Poynter said it is helping cover the costs of the demonstration flight. “It does a really nice job of paying for this flight. It gets us a lot close to having our commercial payloads flying in the very near future,” she said. The flight will, among other things, test the ability for a live downlink of high-definition video from the balloon, a capability she said was not originally planned for this test flight.

Poynter said interest from other potential customers of its stratollite system is growing. “Our manifest is filling very quickly,” she said. “We’re running to keep up.” She said, though, that she was “not at liberty to disclose” those customers at the current time.

World View’s original plans called for a balloon system called Voyager that would fly tourists into the stratosphere, giving them some of the elements of a spaceflight experience. That remains a long-term ambition of the company, Poynter said, but said the company isn’t giving a schedule for those flights.

“So much of what we’re doing with out stratollite system applies directly to our Voyager system,” she said, including many of the technologies needed for those future crewed flights. MacCallum added that a “full-scale, full-mass” simulator of the Voyager cabin to the stratosphere on a balloon flight late this year.

KFC, in both its marketing materials for the flight and in comments by Felix at the briefing, claimed that the sandwich payload will be going to space. However, World View said the peak altitude of the balloon flight is expected to be no more than about 23,000 meters, far short of commonly-used demarcations of space, such as the 100-kilometer Kármán line.

“I’ve learned a lot about space recently, and through our friends at World View have learned that we’re technically going to the edge of space,” Felix acknowledged. “So it’s not quite outer space.”