FREMONT — A Massachusetts company this week launched its first aerial cell tower resembling a big blimp from a new research and development center in Fremont.
According to officials from Altaeros, Wednesday’s test flight went off without a hitch, but it didn’t go unnoticed.
Known as a SuperTower, the tethered blimp that could one day provide cell coverage in remote areas hovered hundreds of feet over the launch pad and was quickly spotted by residents and passersby on Main Street.
Debbie Caputo noticed it flying over the trees across the street from her property.
“I’ve been waiting for it to launch and knew it was coming,” said Caputo, who lives down the road from the testing site just off Main Street near Benson’s Cafe.
The tower, which is also called an “aerostat” and is expected to be flown periodically over the next several months, is designed to deliver high-speed mobile broadband to rural communities at lower cost.
“The launch was completed successfully, according to plan, with no major problems arising. Once we have reviewed the data from this initial launch, we will continue operating on and off over the coming months,” said Ben Glass, founder and CEO of the company headquartered in Somerville, Mass.
According to the company, the tower deploys radios and antennas over four times higher than regular cell towers, which allows the signal to reach greater distances.
The company said control and automation software launches and lands the tower and ensures “safe and reliable operation in all conditions.”
Altaeros has been building and testing the blimp-like towers since it was founded at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2010. It’s currently testing the performance of the telecommunications system.
The research and development center was approved by the town before construction began earlier this year, but the idea of a tethered unmanned blimp hovering overhead has prompted some safety concerns from residents.
Anne Beliveau wasn’t happy to see it pop up Wednesday afternoon. She said she worries about the blimp breaking free and crashing.
“It’s a safety hazard if it comes loose,” she said.
Resident Deborah Placido shared similar safety concerns.
While Caputo said it appeared much smaller than she thought it would be, she was concerned because she thought it would be farther away from condominiums near the site and wonders what would happen if it “collapsed.”
“Where would it go? Would it land in the back of the condo or house or float across to other homes here?” she said.
Glass, the company’s CEO, said the tower is safe.
“We have incorporated a number of safety features, above and beyond what is required for airworthiness. These include structurally redundant tethers to ensure it doesn’t get loose. Additionally, there is plenty of space within the test site to ensure if it does ever come down, it will be within the test site boundary,” he said.
Safety wasn’t Beliveau’s only concern. She also fears someone could put a camera in the blimp to spy on people.
“It’s a privacy concern. I don’t care if they tell me they didn’t put a camera in it, sooner or later it will happen,” she said.