If you had asked a young David Hansell to predict what kind of job he would have when he grew up, he would have told you he wanted a career in the skies. As Global Head of Aviation Regulation and Policy for Loon LLC, which uses high-altitude balloon technology to bring cellular and internet connectivity to remote and underserved parts of the world, he works on the leading edge of both flight and communications operations in the planet’s stratosphere.
It’s a position that Hansell, who was fascinated by airplanes and rockets from an early age, feels fortunate to occupy.
“I lived in Philadelphia until I was 10, and my dad would go out to the airport, and we would just watch the planes take off and land, which was always really cool,” he said. “I super-clearly remember my dad taking me to see the movie The Right Stuff, which is about our first efforts to go into space. It was so captivating. The science behind it, the excitement, the danger, doing something that other people would say ‘that’s crazy!’. I wanted to get up there and be involved in that as much as humanly possible.”
Hansell has charted a unique path throughout a career that has seen him follow his passion to jobs in just about every aspect of the aviation industry, from serving as an enlisted aircrew member during his first stint in the Air Force to his current work at Loon.
“I just went from one happy job to the next and added the necessary education where I thought it would be impactful,” he said.
A 2010 graduate of the OU Extended Campus International Relations master’s program, Hansell believes he is where he is today because of both the career and educational choices he has made.
“I have zero doubt in my mind that my time at OU has helped me immensely,” he said. “I am where I am today because of my graduate program.”
To Soar Through the Heavens
Hansell spent his teenage years in the suburbs of Cleveland, where his father, who had served in the Air Force himself, worked in the steel industry while his mother worked in accounting. Both instilled in him a work ethic that he would take with him when, after graduating high school, he joined the Air Force in 1993, where he served as an aircrew member aboard an E-3 AWACS. When his enlistment ended, he left the service for a few years before returning to train as an air traffic controller.
“I mostly wanted to become a controller because I thought it was cool!” Hansell said, laughing. “I liked that it was an operational position, that you were considered a front-line person. It was one step closer to the mission in my mind. I always wanted to be as close to the activity as possible. My whole career in the Air Force was about getting one step closer to getting in the field.”
It was a few years later before Hansell found a new passion that would lead him into the field, and into combat, when he began training to become a linguist with Air Force Special Operations Command.
"The reality of the world and how it interacts is very much in your face as a linguist. You gain such an appreciation for language and culture and nations that it was very natural for me for me to pursue an education in international relations."
“There aren’t many jobs where you’re that close, flying direct combat,” he said. “I was a Direct Support Operator, a language-capable signals intelligence analyst, in Afghanistan. I had a system that I could carry onto just about any plane that Special Operations Command flew, and with it I could intercept communications on the ground by insurgents and translate what they were saying to provide threat warning and protection to either the aircraft if there were surface-to-air threats, or to the teams on the ground that we were supporting.
“We were the first multi-language-capable special operations detachment during the whole war in 2009. There were only five of us who knew all of the major languages—Farsi, Dari and Pashtu—who were in country. I flew over 50 combat missions during my time in Afghanistan, so it was pretty exciting.”
Hansell earned a bachelor’s degree in professional aeronautics from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University while he served, and during his time as a linguist stationed at Hurlburt Field in Florida, he began work on a master’s degree in international relations with OU Extended Campus.
“Being a linguist naturally brings you out into the world,” he said. “The reality of the world and how it interacts is very much in your face as a linguist. You gain such an appreciation for language and culture and nations that it was very natural for me for me to pursue an education in international relations. I was fascinated by understanding the structures of how we got to where we were, about the wars in Afghanistan and what brought us there.
“There’s an old adage, ‘where trade does not cross borders, bullets will,’ and the thought of that adage has always stuck with me. War is an example of a failure of diplomacy at so many levels, and I really wanted to understand how conflict evolved. Why do nations have these animosities? What’s driving these conflicts? I needed to understand the dynamics of that international relationship at a basic legal and diplomatic level, and the IR degree made that possible for me.”
Into the Stratosphere
After leaving the Air Force in 2010, Hansell taught briefly at the Defense Language Institute in California before joining the Federal Aviation Administration in Washington, D.C., as an Intelligence Officer, where he worked with other agencies to develop a coordinated national security infrastructure as part of the FAA’s national security liaison program. He followed that with an appointment to run the TSA’s Strategic Intelligence Unit, looking for potential global threats to various modes of transportation.
In 2015, he was asked to join the Obama administration as the Director for Transportation Security Policy in the White House, where his job was to address threats to transportation world-wide. Upon leaving the White House in 2016, he joined Facebook as the Global Head of Aviation Policy, then worked with DJI, the world’s leading small UAS manufacturer, on U.S. and international policy.
“The tech companies have seen opportunities to expand connectivity through audacious thinking about aviation issues,” Hansell said. “Six or seven years ago, nobody was thinking about autonomous systems the way we think about them today. It’s a natural evolution for companies like Google and now Loon to look at connectivity as a challenge. Today, we use satellites, undersea cables and ground-based infrastructure to connect people. So what else is out there? It just takes one or two really creative thinkers to say ‘Hey, what about what’s in the middle? What about connecting people using something in high altitude?’
“They realized early on that the aviation industry is not something you just show up to and start flying. You need to have people on board who understand aviation law and aviation architecture, about how the system works and who to talk to about certain issues. I just happened to catch that wave. I had flown on planes. I’ve been an air traffic controller. I’ve worked at the highest levels of government to understand how inter-agency processes actually work.”
That’s why when Loon began searching for a Global Head of Aviation Regulation and Policy in fall 2019, Hansell felt the job had been designed specifically to fit his very unique work history and skill set.
“Loon uses large balloons to bring connectivity to the unconnected and under-connected parts of the world by flying a cell phone tower at 60,000 feet,” Hansell said. “We partner with a mobile network operator to use their frequency as a tunnel through which their data can travel. So if you had an AT&T phone, and you were being connected by one of our balloons, you would never know it. It’s easier for us to bring a cell phone tower to you than it is to build a tower to serve small populations.”
Loon balloons typically carry LTE and 4G payloads that can offer connectivity in a circular area of about 50 km, or about 31 miles. This is much greater than a standard cell phone tower on the ground, which might provide 10 km of coverage and is much more limited by obstructions on the ground.
“The balloons fly almost entirely autonomously,” Hansell said. “The computer determines how the balloons get to their destination by navigating the winds that are omnipresent in the stratosphere. We can predict where those winds are going to take us with fairly good certainty over the near term, so if we need to get a balloon to Kenya or Mozambique, and we launch it from Puerto Rico or Nevada, the computer system can design the most efficient path. So when we launch them, we rely on a whole lot of computing power and some really smart engineers to help get them there safely. We have flight engineers who are constantly on duty watching the balloons, making sure they’re flying in accordance with the laws and agreements with our partner nations around the world, but mostly the balloons fly autonomously.”
Loon recently set a record of over 300 days of sustained flight for one of its balloon arrays, but they typically fly for 150-200 days. Their team of flight engineers constantly monitor the computer systems that measure the balloon’s health and will land them sooner if needed, not only to protect the equipment the balloons carry, and the balloons themselves, but also to ensure that the safety of anyone on the ground is never placed at risk by trying to keep a balloon flying.
“Loon uses large balloons to bring connectivity to the unconnected and under-connected parts of the world by flying a cell phone tower at 60,000 feet.”
“We are very conservative when it comes to safety,” Hansell said. “This technology is very new for much of the world. There are some military aircraft that operate that high, but for the most part, flights at that altitude are very rare. There are a couple of high-altitude, long-endurance aircraft like Airbus’ Zephyr that fly in the stratosphere, and at the very bottom of the area we fly—at about the 50,000-foot range—some business jets fly close to that high, although there is no danger that these jets and Loon balloons interact.
“It takes a great deal of technical expertise to be able to get an aircraft up to 60,000 feet. If you have that capability, you have an obligation to do it safely and responsibly.”
Since flying at that altitude is so rare, aviation regulators and air traffic controllers around the world have only recently begun to realize the need for developing procedures and regulations about how companies and private individuals can fly safely in the stratosphere.
“A lot of my job is partnering with nations, partnering with the International Civil Aviation Organization in Montreal—the UN body that governs aviation—and trying to develop concepts of operation, standards and recommended practices, and ideally regulatory frameworks that unlock the stratosphere for business and personal use, while doing it safely,” he said. “My work in public policy revolves around understanding how the regulatory world works. Being passionate and gaining experience about that is important. It helps to have a methodical approach to thinking through challenges, and a real passion for novel thinking.”
He also leads a team that works on acquiring permissions for overflights in the airspace of countries around the world.
“You have to get permission to overfly nations,” he said, “so we have a whole team that does outreach to nations, educating and partnering with them to deliver our service safely. I also translate the regulatory environments in the countries in which we operate and educate our employees how to safely operate our balloons within those constructs.
“All of us at Loon, want to keep the sky safe. The aviation world is a shared ecosystem with limited resources. If I’m in one piece of the sky, you can’t be in that piece of the sky. Ensuring safe and equitable access to the sky is really important to me. I want the sky to continue to be a safe and open place for growth and exploration. If I can contribute a little piece to that equation, if I can help develop a regulation that helps unlock the stratosphere in a safe fashion, that’s pretty cool.”
Connecting the World
The goal of Loon is to expand connectivity—and the potential for personal and economic growth it brings—to some of the most isolated regions of the world. For Hansell, it is a noble cause.
“I view connectivity as approaching a basic human right,” he said. “So much of our economy, our communication and our living happens online. To not have the opportunity to gain access to this limitless storehouse of information is unfair, and it perpetuates an uneven playing field in the world. I love that Loon is trying to fix that.”
While Hansell estimates that two-thirds of the world has been impacted by the economic, intellectual and cultural growth that can come with the internet, his goal is to make sure that the final third has the same opportunities the rest of us have taken for granted.
“I want people to have access to healthcare and education and outreach the rest of the world enjoys,” he said. “The people I work with at Loon all share that passion to help people around the world have a level playing field when it comes to how we access information.”
Loon has recently announced two new service projects—one in Kenya and one in Mozambique—in addition to the more than 40 balloons that are currently aloft around the world.
“Being passionate about your work means so much in what we do,” Hansell said. “I get to work with some incredibly talented aviation professionals—from pilots, to programmers, material and aerospace engineers, and people who work on communications systems, aircraft payloads and safety.
“There are very few people who specialize in high-altitude aviation policy. There’s maybe 20 of us worldwide. It’s a really collaborative group whose macro interests go far beyond that of just their employer. I’m really lucky that my passions took me on this path, and that tech companies want those same experiences for their policy people, so they deliver connectivity on a global basis in a responsible and safe fashion.”