The future of communications and satellite imagery may belong to a new breed of aircraft – solar powered drones that can stay at high altitudes for up to five years at a time. Functions that previously relied on low-orbit satellites could gradually be transitioned to these lower cost “atmospheric satellites” that can fly at altitudes between 60,000 and 70,000 feet above the Earth.
Titan Aerospace is currently building a long-endurance solar drone, the Solara 50, which is expected to launch next year, with plans for a bigger version in the works.
The Solar 50 features a 50 meter wingspan and a payload capacity of 250 pounds, and can take off, land, and fly autonomously. The skin of the aircraft has 3000 solar cells capable of generating up to 7 kW of power during the daytime, which is stored in lithium-ion batteries in the wings. During the night, the plane can draw from the battery banks to continue its flight uninterrupted.
According to ArsTechnica, using these atmospheric satellites instead of a conventional satellite could cut the cost of multispectral Earth imaging from about $35 per square kilometer to less than $5 per square kilometer, and still provide a large coverage area similar to that of a satellite.
In addition, atmospheric satellites such as the Solara could function as a communications relay for disaster relief, covering an 18 mile radius and creating a network when local services are down.
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