Can you Skype in Space?

It doesn’t matter what platform you use for video conferencing, choppy audio, video lag and distorted speech are an all too common occurrence. Luckily, that’s where NetMotion Mobility comes into play. But don’t take my word for it; continue reading to see how NetMotion can keep you connected, even in the most extreme situations (like outer space).

What were we thinking?

It was an overcast day in Seattle when we sat in the conference room brainstorming new ways to highlight the “sexiness” of NetMotion. Mobile performance can be sexy. Connectivity can be cool. So how do we convey this cool sexiness? And how do we prove that Mobility can maintain a video call on any device, on any network and in any location?

The team tossed out ideas: a skydiver makes a video call during free-fall; a mountaineer sends an email while climbing one of the world’s highest peaks. Then it hit us: outer space. But how do we get there?

The Weather Balloon Approach

People send crazy things into space via weather balloon all the time (donuts, Legos, beer… just to name a few!) so why can’t we?  “Brilliant!” we thought, as we patted ourselves on the back. But how were we going to get a mobile device up into space on a weather balloon? We needed experts. Fortunately, we found Kevin Brazell with Vertical Explorers who addressed many issues we had not considered, including:

  1. Are we breaking any FAA regulations or flying in unauthorized air space?
  2. How far will the wind send our balloon?
  3. How will the weight of our payload affect the launch?
  4. How will we find our devices once they hit the ground?

Once we had a rough plan on the how, we needed the where. The location for this experiment would require wide open space to launch and track our loaded weather balloon. We ultimately decided on the desert outside of Las Vegas, Nevada, because of its mild wind and clear skies.

Prepping for Liftoff

The main goal of this experiment was to show that Mobility can eliminate common user frustrations with video conferencing by optimizing the streaming performance of these applications, even on congested networks, with our unique packet loss recovery tools. Mobility would be loaded and running on all of the devices used for this experiment, but what else would we need?

Experiment Components

  • Apple iPad Air with Wi-Fi & 4G (complete with Otterbox case for optimal protection)
  • Verizon Jetpack MiFi
  • Iridium GO! Satellite hotspot
  • Microsoft Skype
  • Microsoft Surface Book
  • GoPro cameras
  • GPS trackers
  • VHF radio trackers
  • And last but certainly not least NetMotion Mobility

5…4…3…2…1

On the day of the launch, we awoke to a sunny day in Las Vegas and loaded up the SUV with all of our tech (and other necessities like water and energy drinks). Once on the road, we headed to Mountains Edge Regional Park, just outside of town, and met up with the rest of the crew. After prepping the balloon and assembling the payload we connected a Skype call from our Microsoft Surface Book on the ground to the iPad Air on the rig and we were ready to go.

Skype in Space: Payload Assembly | NetMotion Software

Payload assembly: It was critical to get the weight and balance perfect.

Skype in Space: Camera Rig | NetMotion Software

3D Printed NetMotion Logo (Compliments of my Husband): Unfortunately, the logo didn’t survive liftoff and was a casualty of science.

Skype in Space: Filling the Balloon | NetMotion Software

The balloon being filled with helium.

Skype in Space: Balloon | NetMotion Software

The balloon floating over Las Vegas shortly after lift-off.

The Flight

With a total flight time of just over an hour, the balloon traveled approximately 95 miles from the launch site into the Arizona desert, climbing over 100,000 feet into the atmosphere. Here’s what the journey looked like:

  • Our connection started on the ground with our MiFi device
  • At 500ft we switched over to our 4G LTE Verizon connection
  • At 12,500ft we switched from LTE to our satellite connection
  • At 85,000ft we lost connection to the satellite
  • At 106,00ft our balloon popped and began descending

Success! We were able to prove our theory and have some fun in the process. As we finished up our lunch, we received confirmation that our payload had returned to the earth. Next stop: our rendezvous point in Dolan Springs, Arizona.

Skype in Space: Arizona Cactus | NetMotion Software

Exploring the Arizona desert in search of the payload.

Where the $%&* is our stuff?

After about an hour of searching we still had not found our payload. We knew we were close (based on the GPS and radio tracking) but navigating the Arizona terrain was not easy. The sun began to set and things were looking bleak; we could hear the cries of coyotes in the distance, but our team was determined to find the missing payload. We must have spent over two hours in the dark and by this point I was tired, “hangry” and ready to bail.

Just as I was ready to lose it and insist we give up, my determined teammates did the unthinkable and recovered the missing payload! The iPad battery had been drained, but it was still in one piece with not a scratch on it.

Skype in Space: Payload Recovery | NetMotion Software

Recovered Payload: I never would have believed we’d find it in one piece!

Lessons Learned

The precision and attention to detail required to launch a weather balloon and recover it was far more than I had expected. We had a crew searching for the iPad and downed balloon for several hours (which is why there is not more recovery footage) and we were not expecting to end the day in pitch black darkness.  In the end, the launch and recovery efforts were far more complicated than setting up the technology to prove that a Skype call in the atmosphere can work.

Skype in Space: Distance Travelled | NetMotion Software

The total distance travelled in search of the payload.

If you had asked me that day if it was all worth while I probably would have given you a big “hell no!” but looking back now, the hours spent in the dark Arizona desert were worth it. I would 100% go through the entire experience again. Being able to show users and prove that our products can withstand the constraints of space travel is pretty incredible!

Watch the Complete Skyping in Space Video