Soccer in sun and shadow

With a new floating platform, the Qatar World Cup could be made in the shade.

With a new floating platform, the Qatar World Cup could be made in the shade. (Felipe Reis/Getty)

Forget all the hype around cloud computing. Advertising on remote-controlled clouds in the great blue yonder is the hot topic du jour thanks to the FIFA World Cup.

Soccer fans almost overheated in December when the 2022 games were awarded to Qatar. “How would you like a World Cup held in one city? How about if we make that city so hot it constitutes a health risk?” Sunday Telegraph football correspondent Duncan White complained. “Qatar was deemed the highest risk,” he added. “Then the FIFA executive voted for it.”

When players take to the field in Qatar, the local temperature is expected to be above 37°C. Enter Qatar University, which has signed on to cool things down with cloud technology that could spell the end for sky writing, not to mention the Goodyear blimp.

Managing weather isn’t a new concept. The United States tries to induce rain in drought regions by seeding clouds with silver iodide. Russia and China both use jets and artillery to intercept and seed storm clouds approaching high-profile public events, such as the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow, 2006 G8 Summit in St. Petersburg, and 2008 Beijing Olympics. The Russians even seeded clouds during the Chernobyl disaster, hoping to remove radioactive particles from clouds heading toward Moscow.

According to Andrei Sinkev, a scientist with the Main Geophysical Observatory in St. Petersburg, weather-control attempts he has helped conduct have been very encouraging. “They showed that precipitation was prevented or significantly reduced in their intensity.”

But Andrew Detwiler, a meteorologist with the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, isn’t convinced that mankind is any better at controlling weather than predicting it. “The trouble with these single-event weather-modification attempts,” he says, “is that the weather is not perfectly predictable, and you don’t know whether what you did had any effect or not, even if the weather turns out the way you want.”

Qatar, of course, doesn’t need to prevent bad weather. It wants clouds to cool both fans and critics down by providing open stadiums with shade. According to media reports, Meteo Systems, a Swiss company experimenting with cloud ionization, has made rain clouds appear in Abu Dhabi. But company spokesperson Gonzalo Fernandez says reporters “let their imagination run ahead of reality.” She says Meteo hopes to eventually market technology that can enhance clouds and create rain, but not “out of thin air.”

The remote-controlled clouds being developed for Qatar take weather management in a new direction. Working in collaboration with Qatar Science and Technology Park, Qatar University mechanical engineers plan to build US$500,000 artificial clouds using light carbon structures and material envelopes filled with helium gas. Four solar engines would move the jet-length rectangular hovercrafts, while tracking the sun to position them at an appropriate height and angle to maximize shading for new high-tech stadiums in the Gulf emirate. And the concept has ad folks frothing at the mouth since they would be, in the words of Australia’s Ad News, “absolutely ideal for giant, projected adverts.”

Alan Middleton, a marketing expert at York University’s Schulich School of Business, says robo clouds would revolutionize outdoor advertising. He imagines the future of the industry segment looking a lot like what Ridley Scott forecasted in the 1982 movie Blade Runner, which featured high-tech blimps with “full A/V digital messaging flying above cities and events.”

Tony Miller, executive creative director of advertising agency Anderson DDB in Toronto, also sees Qatar’s clouds as “a game changer.” If all goes as planned, he says creativity will decide just how revolutionary the technology will be. “Imagine,” he adds, “a scenario where people upload pictures or other content to the cloud itself, or where companies push content to the people in the stadium. There could be a contest in real time that allows the cloud to move to one part of the stadium or the other, to provide more shade to the winning section. It is a very cool communications vehicle, literally.”

Qatar’s World Cup plans probably went over like a lead balloon at the U.K.-based Cloud Appreciation Society. Then again, nobody has said what happens when Qatari’s man-made clouds meet the real deal.