Balloon-Borne Vehicles Provide a Bird’s-Eye View

Zane Maccagnano, Lead Engineer, Design Structures & Mechanisms, World View Enterprises

It costs hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars to launch a satellite into a geosynchronous orbit where it hovers above a point on earth for observation or communications. Now, World View’s balloon-borne Stratollite vehicles can carry large payloads to altitudes up to 95,000 feet and park them there for weeks or months at a cost orders of magnitude less than a satellite or other comparable technologies. World View engineers saved an estimated eight months and about $600,000 by using ANSYS simulation software to determine the right design before building and testing a prototype.

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stratollite satellite platform

"The Stratollite vehicle carries payloads up to 50 kg and can stay in position for weeks or months, well exceeding the capabilities of current UAVs."

ANSYS Mechanical stress simulation

Stresses experienced by payload module during 7g landing


The remotely controlled, uncrewed Stratollite vehicle features a payload module carried by a high-altitude balloon. It is a low-cost alternative to rocket-launched satellites for long-duration deployment over customer-specified areas of interest. The Stratollite vehicle maintains its position using a proprietary ballast system that raises and lowers it to capture specific directional wind patterns. It would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and taken weeks to build and test each thermal or structural design prototype. Instead, World View engineers used ANSYS Mechanical structural and thermal analysis to iterate to a design that meets the company’s requirements, achieving validation with just one structural and one thermal prototype.


satellite imagery

High-resolution imagery captured during a Stratollite mission over Arizona


There are many commercial and defense applications, such as homeland security, disaster relief, weather forecasting and communications, that require the ability to position sensors on a fixed platform far above the earth, all of which are part of the smart connected world. The conventional method of achieving this goal has been to launch a satellite into geosynchronous orbit, which is costly and may require years of waiting to secure a launch date. UAVs do provide a more affordable and flexible alternative, but they have limited flight times and are still quite costly to build and operate.

World View’s remotely controlled Stratollite vehicle overcomes these limitations by riding a high-altitude balloon to the edge of space at a typical cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars. The Stratollite vehicle carries payloads up to 50 kg and can stay in position for weeks or months, well exceeding the capabilities of current UAVs. Recently, World View successfully executed its first multiday Stratollite mission, a key milestone signaling the commercial readiness of the platform. Admiral Kurt W. Tidd, Commander, U.S. Southern Command, recently said of the Stratollite, "We think this has the potential to be a game-changer for us — a great, long-duration, long-dwell surveillance platform."

"Engineers saved up to eight months and about $600,000 by using ANSYS simulation software."


Ensuring that the Stratollite vehicle withstands the thermal loading experienced in the stratosphere, as well as the mechanical loading during descent and landing, was a critical part of the design process. Fewer load cases than conventional satellites were required because the payload module does not experience the high vibration and shock loads faced during launch. The greatest mechanical loading occurs when the parachute opens during its descent and when it lands on the earth. The Stratollite payload module frame is built using riveted sheet metal to create a semi-monocoque structure that holds the altitude control and avionics equipment, and the payload. At the bottom of the structure are three skids with energy absorbers used during landing. Testing of the structure under the mechanical loads experienced during descent requires construction of a prototype that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and take about three weeks for each design iteration. World View engineers need to ensure that the structure can withstand g-force parachute opening loads of 5 g and landing loads of 7 g. Buckling is the most likely failure mode. The structure also needs to be as light as possible to maximize payload weight.

Through Elite Channel Partner Phoenix Analysis & Design Technologies (PADT), World View joined the ANSYS Startup Program, which provides full access to simulation software bundles that are designed and priced specially for startup companies. By working closely with PADT for many years, World View's engineers have gained access to an impressive level of expertise and support, which ensures that Stratollites are designed to withstand the rigors of launching into, flying through and coming back from the stratosphere.

stratollite vehicle
Stratollite vehicle

The original geometry of the structure was produced in SolidWorks computer-aided design (CAD) software. Using the ANSYS–SolidWorks import tool, World View engineers were able to easily bring the CAD model into ANSYS Workbench. Engineers used ANSYS DesignModeler to create surfaces from the original CAD file and then, employing ANSYS Workbench, generated meshes from the surfaces with computationally efficient shell elements. When the constraints and loads were applied to the structure, the static analysis showed that stresses due to parachute openings, launch loads and landing loads were well within yield limits. World View engineers knew that, with a semi-monocoque structure, material static strength efficiency is not always the limiting design factor. The thin members, with reduced cross-sectional areas that can lower modulus or stiffness, created design challenges leading to the need for ANSYS’ advanced capabilities in buckling analysis.

Engineers added a second analysis branch for buckling analysis. They ran the analysis for several buckling modes, which produced the buckling mode shapes and load factors for each mode shape. The buckling load factor is the ratio of the load that will cause the structure to buckle to the actual load — in other words, the margin of safety against buckling. In several cases, load factors were below acceptable levels, so engineers modified the SolidWorks model to, for example, add stringers (ribs with a cross section that are riveted to the structure). They imported the new geometry from SolidWorks while maintaining the same constraints and loads from the previous version of the model. Over a series of eight iterations, engineers added stringers in the legs above and below the payload, until they were satisfied that the structure could handle the buckling loads. ANSYS simulation helped World View add the minimum amount of structural supports to meet their design requirements while minimizing the weight of the structure.

"Without simulation, the structure would have been considerably heavier, reducing the payload capacity of the vehicle."


stress simulation

Stresses during a 5 g parachute opening


Thermal loading on the payload module presents electronics thermal management concerns both on the side of the craft heated by the sun and on the cold side, which is exposed to ambient temperatures as low as –90 C. At lower altitudes of about 50,000 feet, the very cold temperatures of the stratosphere can damage electronics, while at higher altitudes of about 95,000 feet, the very thin atmosphere limits convection cooling which can then cause electronics overheating. The electronic equipment in the vehicle must be maintained within the range of –40 C to +50 C. To evaluate the payload module for thermal management, engineers added geometry to the structure to represent electronic components, including circuit boards, heat sinks, radiator plates and enclosures. They loaded the model with heat sources representing the sun, key integrated circuits and the heaters required to maintain temperatures within the acceptable range. They added conductive pathways and radiant constraints within the enclosure and on its exterior so that the virtual components could be simulated to conduct heat to each other, and to radiate internally and externally. Natural convection of the external surface of the enclosure was calculated using a lookup table to determine the heat transfer coefficient as a function of surface temperatures. With the applied loads and constraints to the model, World View engineers showed that the expected cold case and hot case were within the electronic component temperature limits.


World View engineers optimized the structural and thermal design with simulation and then performed an iteration of ground testing for mechanical loads and another for thermal loads. In both cases, testing showed that the design met requirements. The recent flight test further confirmed that the design was correct. Simulation saved at least two rounds of structural ground testing, which could have taken about two months and cost around $300,000, and two rounds of thermal ground testing, which could have taken around six months and also cost around $300,000. Furthermore, without simulation, the structure would have been considerably heavier, reducing the payload capacity of the vehicle.

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