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With the help of Japan, stratospheric platform airships may lift off in Uzbekistan

Over the last few years both government and industry in Japan have been looking into the commercial viability of developing stratospheric platform stations. A stratospheric platform station is a large unmanned airship placed 20 km above the surface of the earth acting as a relay station for wireless communication. While still just a concept, such technology would have many advantages over land based and satellite systems.

With the help of Japanese government and industry, Uzbekistan may be the first country to manufacture and deploy a stratospheric platform airship.

This article was published in the October, 2009 edition of Business Ascii.

English Translation

In the central Asian country of Uzbekistan plans are under consideration to construct an airship which would be floated in the stratosphere. This would enable wireless telecommunication coverage over large parts of the country. While such a plan seems more like a dream; by combining the resources of Uzbekistan with the technology of Japan that dream could soon become a reality.

A few years ago Japanese companies started work on developing “stratospheric platforms.” Stratospheric platforms are airships stationed in the stratosphere that serve as relay stations for telecommunications. Airships were invented in the 19th century and by the 20th century airships were flying trans-Atlantic routes. Airship technology is a mature technology. Today, in countries such as Japan, America and England research is being undertaken to use airships as the next generation base stations for information and communication technology.

The length of a stratospheric platform airship would have to be 250 meters. One problem is that the facilities required to build such a large airship do not exist in Japan. The largest airship in the world today is the 75-meter “Zeppelin NT.” The scale of facilities required to construct a 250-meter airship would be enormous.

At the Tashkent National Bank College, the Japan International Cooperation Agency has an overseas senior volunteer teaching entrepreneurship. When Mr. Hagiwara Takanobu and his students were looking into the necessity of having a logistics system in Uzbekistan they came up with the idea of making Uzbekistan the center of airship manufacturing.

The inflammable helium gas to fill the airship could be supplied in Uzbekistan. Such a large airship would require a new type of membrane to contain the gas. It is possible to manufacture a membrane composed of a new type of synthetic fiber made of carbon nano tubes and cotton. Uzbekistan is the world’s second largest producer of raw cotton and has plentiful supplies of natural gas.

Uzbekistan has large tracks of unpopulated land. It lies along the same latitude as North-eastern Japan with the same kind of wind current crossing both countries. More importantly, former Soviet aircraft factory technicians are now assembling aircraft for the Russian aircraft manufacture “Ilyushin” in Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan is home for not only an aircraft industry, but consumer electronic and automobile manufacturing. The people of Uzbekistan have a knack for constructing things.

For some time the Japan International Cooperation Agency has been providing Japanese-language education classes at Tashkent, Bukuhara and the world heritage town of Samarkand. The University at Tashkent has a Japanese language department. It’s surprising how many people in Uzbekistan are capable of speaking Japanese. Japanese technicians would not have to learn Russian and research could be conducted inexpensively.

Kawasaki heavy industries estimates that if two stratospheric platform airships were constructed and put in place over Uzbekistan, the county could have high-speed internet access like WiMAX. While Uzbekistan has ADSL service, dial-up service is mostly used. ADSL service is limited to less than one megabite, so there are virtually no internet users. If the stratospheric platform airship became reality all of Uzbekistan’s internet communication infrastructure problems would be solved.

While plans are still under consideration, Mr. Hagiwara is planning to hold a conference in Tashikent around fall next year about the airship business. He has also started doing research on developing a package that combines a logistics system using a stratospheric platform airship with a new airborne system.

Real Japanese

中央アジアに位置するウズベキスタンで、成層圏に滞在する無線局機能を持つ飛行船を介し、 広範囲の通信を実現する、成層圏プラットフォーム計画が検討されている。この夢のような計画も、日本の技術とウズベキスタンの資源を組み合わせれば、にわかに現実味を帯びてくる。

日本が2000年代前半から取り組む「成層圏プラットフォーム」。成層圏まであげた飛行船を無線通信の基地局として使うというものだ。飛行船自身は19世紀に開発され、20世紀には大西洋横断航路に就航するなど、すでにこなれた技術だが、現在は次世代のICT(情報通信技術)の基地として、日本、米国、英国などで研究されている。成層圏プラットフォームには全長250メートル級の飛行船が必要とされているが、日本では広大な経験場がないことが問題となっている。現状世界最大の飛行船「ツェッぺリンNT」が全長75メートル強なので、試験場に桁違いの広さが必要なことがわかるだろう。

JICA(国際協力機講)のシニア海外ボランティアとして、首都タシケントの国立バンクカレッジで起業家育成の教鞭を執る萩原孝信氏。萩原氏は同国で必要な物流システムを調べ、学生らと対話していく中で、同国が飛行船産業の拠点になりうると思いついた。

飛行船に詰める不燃性ヘリウムガスには同国の天然ガスが、巨大な飛行船に必要な新しい膜剤には綿とカーボンナノチューブの新しい合繊繊維使える可能性がある。同国は世界で第2位の綿花の生産国であり天然ガスも豊富だからだ。

また、ウズベキスタンには集落のない広大な土地もある。緯度的にも日本の東北地方と同じで、上空の気流が日本の上空に近い。そしてなにより、旧ソ連時代の飛行機工場とその技術者たちが、今もロシアの航空機「イリューシン」の組み立てを行っている。同国には航空機産業以外にも、家電メーカーや自動車メーカーもあり、モノづくりの気質があるのだ。

JICAは、以前からタシケントと世界遺産の街サマルカンドおよびブハラで日本語教育の支援を行っている。日本語学料を擁する大学もあり、意外にも日本語人材は裕福だ。すなわち日本の技術者がロシア語を学ぶ必要なく、しかも安価に実験を行うことができる。

川崎重工は、2機の飛行船を成層圏に飛ばせば、同国全土でWiMAXなどと高速無線インターネットが可能になると試算している。

同国のネット環境の現状は、ADSLこそあれダイヤルアップ接続が現役で、ADSLもまた公称1Mに満たないため、ネット利用者も非常に少ない。そこに、成層圏プラットフォームが実現すれば、ネット通信インフラの問題が一気に解決することになるわけだ。

また本計画は検討の段階だが、萩原氏は来年の秋ごろにタシケントでの飛行船ビジネスに関するカンファレンス開催を予定している。また、萩原氏の教育現場では、成層圏プラットフォームと飛行船による物流システムと、新しい航空システムをパッケージ化したビジネス展開の研究も開始している。

Japanese Language Points

にわかに現実味を帯びてくる - will soon become reality

こなれた技術 - mature technology

大西洋横断航路 - trans-Atlantic route

経験場 - Literally, “testing station.” In this case a more appropriate translation would be “facilities.”


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