Satellite Alternatives: How Drones Conquer the Stratosphere

The development of high-altitude drones often entails a plethora of challenges, coupled with an even greater number of unsuccessful experiments. 

17/07/2023 - 19:59
Source: WSJ
Source: WSJ

Engineers across various aerospace companies have endeavored to achieve increasing altitudes and extended operational durations from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). In the ongoing race to advance drone technology, a recent breakthrough has emerged, as reported by citing The Wall Street Journal.

Drones have long influenced the course of military operations, actively participating in conflicts. Analysis indicates that military forces require aerial vehicles impervious to radar and anti-air defense systems, capable of sustaining extended flight durations. Additionally, for civilian applications, high-altitude drones could provide internet connectivity to remote and inaccessible regions.

Currently, several military UAVs can operate at altitudes exceeding 18,000 meters. However, companies are striving to develop even higher-altitude and longer-endurance drones, positioning them as economically viable alternatives to satellites.

One such drone is the PHASA-35, developed by the British firm BAE Systems. The experimental model recently completed a successful takeoff from an airfield in New Mexico and remained airborne for 24 hours. Developers anticipate that it could stay aloft for up to a year and reach altitudes of 20,000 meters. Its anticipated deployment is set for late 2026.

BAE Systems devoted years to perfecting the PHASA-35, which made its maiden flight in 2020. With a wingspan of 35 meters, comparable to a Boeing 737's wingspan, and weighing as much as a standard motorcycle, the PHASA-35 is adorned with solar panels across its wing surface. These panels generate energy, providing ample lift in the sparse stratospheric air.

The European multinational corporation Airbus, renowned for its aircraft manufacturing, has also developed a high-altitude drone named Zephyr. Zephyr has already flown at altitudes of up to 22,000 meters continuously for 64 days. Boasting a wingspan of 25 meters and weighing just 60 kilograms, half of which comprises batteries, it will undergo tests this summer for the U.S. Department of Defense and a Japanese telecommunications company to achieve flight durations exceeding 200 days.

The development of high-altitude drones is often riddled with considerable difficulties and numerous failed experiments. Utilizing drones in the stratosphere presents challenges such as navigation in volatile weather conditions, shielding from solar radiation, and ensuring their safe return. As a result, drone electronics must exhibit exceptional durability, while operators continually receive meteorological data for the surrounding area.

Despite the complexity and setbacks in development, many companies maintain optimism regarding such engineering ventures and their potential. Airbus, for instance, forecasts that the stratospheric drone market could reach $200 billion by the mid-2030s.

These high-altitude drones can be likened to pseudo-satellites, replete with their advantages. For instance, Zephyr can provide communication coverage over an area equivalent to 7,500 square kilometers, akin to the presence of 250 terrestrial telecommunications towers.

Furthermore, in terms of signal quality, bandwidth, and transmission times, drones can outperform satellites due to their closer proximity to Earth.

The development and integration of high-altitude drones signify significant progress in the realm of unmanned aerial vehicles, poised to not only revolutionize military affairs but also significantly expand the capabilities of global communication quality.




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