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Sceye founder talks about expansion plans

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Sceye launches a scaled-down version of its stratospheric airship in October 2019. (Submitted Photo)

Vestergaard talks with legislators about bridging digital divide

A materials science company and airship developer with a hangar at the Roswell Air Center has announced its plans for a major expansion, but its president has said that the site for its future development and production facility could be somewhere else in the state.

Mikkel Vestergaard, founder of Sceye Inc., told members of the Interim Committee of Science, Technology and Telecommunications on Tuesday morning that the company successfully launched scaled-down versions of its observation and communications airships at its hangars in Moriarty and at the Roswell Air Center, generating needed data from those test flights. But now, as the company looks to develop its full-scale commercial models, it intends to build a much larger site.

Vestergaard noted that, in addition to his own $50 million contribution to Sceye so far, the company has had help in the past, “so far $2 million for our facilities in Roswell. And we are in the process of expanding elsewhere, with a production facility that is also getting support from the EDD,” Vestergaard said.

The New Mexico Economic Development Department (EDD) announced that it would provide $5 million in Local Economic Development Act funds to help with the new project, which has been estimated to cost $35 million to $45 million in addition to that.

“We have also outgrown the homes that we grew up in,” he told legislators. “As such, we are looking to state and federal to help us generate a place from where we can build and launch the commercial scale.”

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He said the new facility must be able to house a 500-foot-long and 130-foot-wide airship, one capable of remaining stationary in the stratosphere for many months, if not years. The airships are lifted by helium and powered by solar energy.

“This is not in any way a small facility,” he said. “It is a facility that will need to fit several football fields inside.”

The new development and production hangar also could have as many as 140 employees.

He told legislators that just as airlines do not pay for airports and auto manufacturers do not pay for roads, he does not think Sceye should be the one paying for the site used to build infrastructure.

Three different companies made presentations to the committee, as legislators focused on ways that New Mexico can bridge the gap between schools and students with high-speed internet and those without.

Some members of the committee noted that students with access to high-speed internet may fall six months behind due to the pandemic, while those without reliable, good internet — which is 100% of households in some tribal areas — could lose as much as two years of educational achievement.

“The need for equality has been successfully verified during the pandemic. It has completely put on display the great gap between the connected and the unconnected,” Vestergaard said.

Vestergaard is an owner of a namesake corporation, based in Switzerland, which has been using materials science for years to develop life-saving and life-enhancing technologies. It invented nets and food packaging with mosquito insecticides that reduce malaria.

He also was a leader with an affiliated venture, LifeStraw, which created a straw that can filter out parasites from drinking water.

In 2014, he began the Sceye partnership to develop the airship that can travel up to 65,000 miles into the stratosphere to carry equipment capable of collecting data and providing the infrastructure for internet or cellphone service.

He said five airships over the skies of New Mexico would provide 100% wireless internet for the state. One airship could cover 100 miles and reach a million people.

Sceye is partnering with Sacred Wind Communications in the project to provide wireless internet to remote areas of New Mexico. Sacred Wind has operated since 2006 to build fiber optic and copper networks primarily in the Navajo Nation, but also other rural areas of New Mexico.

Vestergaard also said he has talked with the New Mexico Environment Department and the New Mexico Department of Transportation about other uses for the Sceye airships, including monitoring pollution and methane leaks in the state.

He said that because the airships are stationary — serving as “towers in the sky” — they can operate within the information firewalls of states or countries, and he said they also are cheaper than technologies that rely on satellites. He said satellites require costly ground sites for transmitting signals, while the airships will be able to send signals directly to phones or other data receivers.

He said additional flight tests of the airships are scheduled for October and May 2021, with commercial availability expected by 2022.

Vestergaard added that he would anticipate that one airship would be launched in the state in the area of greatest need at first, with additional airships at future times.

If funding for the initial $70 million needed for five airships would be borne by state, federal and private sources, then internet and data carriers could be expected to cover the annual costs thereafter, he told committee members.

He said his company needs engineers and researchers who have worked on the development of high-performance machines, such as Formula One race cars or world-class competition yachts. He anticipates working with Sandia National Labs, the U.S. Air Force Research Lab, New Mexico Tech, New Mexico State University and the University of New Mexico, among other research and development centers, for future research and workforce development needs.

In addition to Sceye and Sacred Wind Communications, the legislative committee heard from optiPulse Inc., a start-up in Albuquerque.

Its chief executive officer, John Joseph, said that the company has developed a nanochip that can transmit “lightspeed” 5G internet via laser beams from “smart” poles. He said the poles are less expensive and easier to construct than more traditional internet infrastructure.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 351, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.