How far we've come
From the humble beginnings of Daedalus and Icarus strapping on wax-bound feather wings and taking to the skies (with less-than-stellar results), to the heavier-than-air innovations of the early 20th century, flight technology has come far indeed.
Many powerful innovations have come from this field of technology: Jet engines, the Concorde, easy commercial flights and aeronautic vehicles for the private user. Competitions now exist for the invention and trial-testing of single-person aircraft powered by nothing more than pedals or other human torque - impressive!
When thinking of "aircraft" we usually think of heavier-than-air transporters such as the airplane or helicopter. Those a bit more creatively minded may envision gliders or autogyros, which are low-cost alternatives to their less green counterparts. However, one seemingly outdated and obsolete solution to air travel may soon be resurfacing with surprising vigor...
What, like the Goodyear blimp?
Perhaps, but not exactly that kind. Lighter-than-air travel first originated in the 18th century, after the scientific writings of Henry Cavendish examined the properties of hydrogen gas. It was posited not soon after that a way of achieving manned flight would be possible. The first recorded manned flight (that didn't end in disaster) was that of the Montgolfier brothers, in Paris, 1783.
Airships come in 3 flavors:
Balloons and blimps, without any reinforcing structure but the internal air pressure to retain its shape during flight. The gas need not be contained in one large container, as "ballonets" are a valid alternative.
These airships have some supporting structure, mainly in the form of an articulated keel or strut along the body keeping the gas envelope from folding in on itself.
A firm skeleton made of a hardened material contains many envelopes of gas to reduce the risk of deflation, fire or damage
Fixed-wing and heavier-than-air vehicles have many advantages: If travel speed and fuel efficiency is paramount, one must look no further than a fixed-wing aircraft that cruises at high altitudes. Helicopters and similar VTOL (Vertical take-off and landing) craft are useful in engineering, rescue and military applications. However, it is the airship that allows for a continued and environmentally friendly stay in the skies without the need for mountains or towers.
Why on earth would we want such a thing? It's cold up there in the sky, and we get all the good views we need from satellite images!
The skeptical reader is correct - such a development would be costly, impractical, and perhaps unsafe. Startup Societies are all about innovation in governance, and anything that can be achieved in a special economic zone on land or a new seasteading project can more than suffice, so what's this with taking to the sky? Seasteads, Antarctic dome cities, underground facilities? Surely SSF must be joking with these wide-eyed pipe dreams.
The answer: Governance need not be for everyday life alone. Independent startup societies that specialize in different areas of human coexistence will surely spring up: some will focus on co-working and high technology, others as agricultural retirement communities close to nature. Startup societies are made to be specialized in different fields - regulatory, economic and cultural. The key product that startup societies offer may not in fact be residence, at least the physical type.
We are advocating for a genuine city in the clouds, with its own economy, permanent settlements and sovereignty. Such a society is difficult to envision - what advantage does mere altitude present? Moreover, how do we deal with the inevitable problem of property rights, establishing legal independence and similar issues? As always, creativity is all that's necessary for identifying the underserviced fields of governance and other markets:
1. A cloud of citizenship
This type of startup society may indeed be digital in nature, a type of startup society which we will discuss in a future article. Residents of such a society need not ever set foot on the craft whence their citizenship stems - it is the sovereignty and independence of such a society that provides the citizenship (with all that entails) for a person bearing their identification, which is obtained through contract. Governance need not be grounded in soil - what we really expect of a government is the enforcement of contracts and control of crime, do we not?
If so, the sky-society in question would do well to arrange with other startup societies such agreements that the sky-society's citizens have their disputes settled by an agreed-upon third party. This is common in world politics today: third-party nations with no stake in a matter are often called upon to settle conflicts between two others. Sometimes the deciding body is an international organization such as the UN, but even private mediators have been the decision-makers in such matters.
Any number of advantages may be derived from bearing a sky-society citizenship, but these are no more lucrative than similar arrangements that can be made with less outlandish startup societies. So far, the jury is not convinced.
2. Telecommunications & Data
At a certain altitude, wireless transmission of data becomes extremely lucrative - internet providers have been using satellite coverage for broadband internet supplying since the late 90's. Advances in materials technology and computers will only bolster the case for airborne data nodes. Why not simply move the server farms, data hubs and cloud computing infrastructure into the sky?
Interferometric (that's fancy talk for" tamper-proof") laser communication can establish safe, data-intensive (up to 50mbps) streams of data for almost no upkeep. Until such time comes that wireless data communication can become more practical to house on the surface or otherwise, satellites and airborne information nodes remain a powerful solution.
Extending from the previous point, a position of altitude provides excellent abilities of observation, which can be distributed to interested parties for all possible uses: Coastline erosion tracking, oil spill following, helping combat wildfires or for agricultural purposes. This is a slight addition to point 2, but one worth mentioning in either case.
At a height where it's always sunny and windy, energy production shouldn't be an issue. Consumables such as water, foodstuffs and other similar objects cannot be produced out of thin air, and must be flown in. However, the altitude may prove to have beneficial properties for certain industries. SSF is only aware of the digital communication aspect of things, but flying airports, resorts, agricultural or other solutions may yet prove to be applicable.
Brass tacks: Let's presume that we have a massive airship-city that we're prepared to launch. What's to say that government fighter jets won't shoot it down for our own safety and the safety of the 80,000 flights that move through U.S. airspace every single day?
Within the U.S., there exists a classification of airspace into several groups: A, B, C, D, E and G.
E is the largest of the group, made up of the airspace 18,000 feet above sea level up to 22 nautical miles from the coast of U.S. soil (including territories such as American Samoa, Puerto Rico etc.). Unless otherwise specified, if it is controlled airspace and not A, B, C or D - it's E airspace.
"If it is controlled airspace" - this is where the interesting things happen. There exists a class of airspace called uncontrolled airspace. According to the International Civil Aviation Organization, class G airspace is the kind that's too close to the ground for the authorities to monitor (and don't need to bother with) as well as "unclaimed" airspace that's 22 nautical miles out of the coast.
The laws aren't clear (as current nations do not want to invite competition in governance) how the independence process can or might work - seasteads must exist outside the exclusive economic zone (220 nautical miles) but it is not clear whether a floating (in the air) settlement outside of controlled airspace has more autonomy than a seastead at the same distance.
Current legislative, political and economic environments may spell delay for the possibility of airborne settlements. The idea itself has application in more than one field, and the technology very likely exists for the continued sufficiency of such a structure. As with any startup society subject, the possibilities are nearly endless - as are the obstacles. As Daedalus flew too close to the sun, this subject may also be too early to discuss: as inspiring as such projects may at the first thought appear, pragmatism must win out at the end of the day.