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Meet the Hoosier who’s launched 25 unmanned balloons over 2 decades

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — The three balloons shot down were most likely research or recreational balloons, President Joe Biden said this week.

I-Team 8 talked with a representative of a company in Grant County, Indiana, that has put up dozens of balloons for research and educational uses. Brandon Pearson of NearSpace Education in Upland says the rules for flying an unmanned balloon are very straightforward. “There are certain regulations that you have to do ahead of time. Now, almost all of the balloons we launch are for education outreach.”

Last summer, Pearson and a group of students launched a balloon that was in the air for about 2 hours. He and the students tracked the balloon through Indiana and Ohio. The balloon reached 90,000 feet before a device on the balloon was activated to bring it down.

Prior to any liftoff, a host of paperwork is filled out.

Pearson said Friday, “I’m filling what is called a NOTAM, which is a Notice to Airmen, and that goes out to the FAA (Federal Aviation Authority) for anybody that might be within the area that would be impacted by the flight so they now have the balloon registered in their system. They know exactly what day it is going up, what time it is going up, how high it is supposed to go, how long it is supposed to fly for, approximately where it is supposed to come down; so, all of that data has been collected so there aren’t any questions.”

The payloads on Pearson’s balloons have been a collection of student experiments. Pearson has launched 25 unmanned balloons over the past two decades. The balloons he uses are made from a radar-detectable material. The FAA requires Pearson and other unmanned-balloon operators to report the balloons’ location every two hours.

Pearson said his company has taken the tracking a step further. “We have developed a tracking system for our balloons that allow us to get altitude, latitude, longitude and assent, the rate it is going up, up to every 30 seconds, and that is information we pass along to the FAA as well, so they are welcome to track it, and I know we have worked with groups such as the Chicago airport and other places that will track the balloons while in flight.”

J.C.Buehler is an attorney with a Carmel law firm and a pilot with decades of flying experience. He says the operators of unmanned balloons can face some liability and fines for reckless operation; for example, not telling the FAA when and where balloons are taking off or coming down, or not reporting its position every two hours.

With the recent shootdowns of unidentified aerial objects, will more regulations be coming soon? 

Buehler said, “Maybe to make the notice requirements more forceful, you know, because an operator can be violated. I don’t know what the current penalty is. It is probably in the neighborhood of $12,000 per violation. I suppose Congress could do that. The FAA could do that, but the research and study being conducted by these operations are important.”