Is a New Era of Aerial Espionage Regulation on the Horizon?

Is a New Era of Aerial Espionage Regulation on the Horizon?

A beautiful childhood memory of mine is the ceremonious balloon launch a few days before Día de Reyes in early January. A common practice in Mexico and some Latin American countries, kids used to send a letter to the three wise men attached to a helium-filled balloon. A sky full of balloons carrying a list of toys and gifts that children expected to open in the morning was a common sight. However, in early 2023, spotting balloons in the sky has taken on a very different meaning.

The already-weakened diplomacy between the US and China suffered yet another blow at the start of February, when, according to the BBC, US forces ‘shot down four aerial objects over North American skies […], raising more questions than answers about what’s happening high above earth’.

Most of the questions referenced in the BBC’s article are purely political. However, technology firms should keep a close eye on the strictly technical debates facing the sector, which could lead to a swarm of new regulations that impact current operations of Suborbital vehicles, High-altitude platforms (HAPS), and aerial Earth stations in motion (ESIMs).

A logical first question is, why a balloon? One can think of much more sophisticated ways of engaging in state-level espionage – many inspired by James Bond movies. Nevertheless, these objects have a degree of complexity that provides a level of flexibility and practicality relative to alternative technologies.

To compare high-altitude balloons with satellites, for instance, the former do not require an expensive launch through a rocket, reducing costs considerably. Furthermore, satellites are limited to trajectories described by their orbits. This is not the case for balloons, which can easily change their routes. Finally, these balloons can reach altitudes above 37 km (12,0000 ft), well above the maximum regulated altitudes for commercial and military aircraft. Nevertheless, discretion is not their forte as they are easily spottable and very weakly armoured, which makes them easy targets for fighter jets patrolling the area.

Having established the technical pros and cons of high-altitude balloons, one must think of the existing rules enforced by civil and federal aviation authorities and telecommunication regulators, which are relevant to these vehicles as they could soon be modified following recent events. Tech firms currently developing similar technologies, such as HAPS, or national administrations actively participating in regulatory discussions are likely to modify their activities with a view to strengthening aerial traffic invigilation. Aviation authorities will certainly aim for tougher measures to avoid ‘rogue’ aircraft being categorised as malicious, which will take us back to the longstanding drone conundrum: how can we ensure this technology is used for good?

Would frequency planning, spectrum management, or similar methods of compatibility assessment provide higher degrees of protection for international skies? The upcoming World Radio Conference (WRC-23) represents the ideal forum to discuss current and possible scenarios where high-altitude vehicles constitute a threat to international stability.

Access Partnership’s commitment to secure fair technology across the globe communes with the idea of securing the skies, as we believe technology must be available worldwide but also offer safe ways to use it. Should you wish to discuss these issues further, please contact Sergio Rodriguez-Albarran at [email protected].

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