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Russian high-altitude spy planes may be given a new lease of life as platforms for telecoms services, if an audacious (and rather improbable) scheme ever gets off the ground.

Myasishchev M-55 were initially designed to intercept spy balloons after the US U-2 program was shut down. After the end of the Cold War, a modified version of the aircraft (the M-55 Geophysica) found service in scientific research roles. For example, one was used to study the arctic stratosphere in the late 1990s.

M-55 planes are still based on the original design, which included the facility to carry weapons to high altitude. This facility is now being repurposed to carry telecoms kit.

The idea is the planes could act as a platform for telecoms coverage in areas where satellite coverage is dodgy or for emergency relief in regions where the existing telecoms infrastructure has either been damaged or destroyed. By flying at high altitude the planes can potentially provide an uplink to a large area on the ground.

In principle, the scheme recalls the broadband by blimp idea that gets periodically floated every now and again but never seems to come to much. Nonetheless, Myasishchev reckons the idea is a goer. It plans to prove the concept with demonstration plane due to take the skies over Malaysia in February and March next year, Cellular News (which carries a pictures of the Cold War warhorse turned potential telecom platform) reports.

In other applications of the aircraft, a modified version of the M-55 is being considered as the launch aircraft for the C-21 suborbital rocketplane by Space Adventures, a space tourism firm. ®

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