Solar-powered drone that can fly for up to a year

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BAE Systems and Prismatic, two British aerospace firms, are developing a drone supposedly capable of remaining in the sky for an entire year at high altitudes. The drone could be described as a High Altitude, Long Endurance (HALE) unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).

Called PHASA-35 (which stands for ‘Persistent High Altitude Solar Aircraft’), the drone will be fitted with lithium-ion batteries and ultra-lightweight gallium arsenide solar cells to allow it to remain at altitudes between 55,000 and 70,000ft for up to 12 months. The aircraft’s battery is to be charged during the day by the sun, which allows it to operate throughout the night.

PHASA-35An artist impression of PHASA-35
Source: BAE Systems

The companies have already produced a concept vehicle, which boasts a 35m wingspan and weighs in at just 150kg. Due to its small size it’s ideal for high altitude flights. According to BAE Systems, the drone is also “significantly cheaper to produce than other satellites”. The solar-powered drone will be used for surveillance and to provide communications in remote areas, much like Facebook’s Aquila drone project.

“The purpose of doing it is to enable the aircraft to stay in the air for months or years at a time, providing services such as communications and remote sensing,” said Prismatic managing director Paul Brooks.

“We became involved in the programme because we were actually looking at space, not so much as high altitude. We aim to continue to develop the technologies, to aim to productionise this and find a way to go to market jointly."

“We’ll help with that productionisation and the route to market and linking it to our customer base; and Prismatic will bring to the programme, but I think hopefully we’ll learn from them more generally, on the rapid engineering, the small-project thinking, the innovation,” said BAE Systems strategy director Michael Christie.

BAE Systems and Prismatic launched a quarter-scale version of the drone back in 2017, which completed its journey successfully. The firms claim PHASA-35’s first full test flights are to be expected somewhere in 2019.

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