Sep 022013
 

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It functions a bit like a satellite, except substantially cheaper and much more versatile.

The largest robot in the AUVSI expo hall last week belonged to Titan Aerospace. It was a model of their Solara 50 robotic atmospheric satellite, and they had to chop off the tail and most of the wings to get it to fit. The Solara is intended to lift a payload to 20,000 meters and then keep it there for five years, running entirely on solar power. It functions a bit like a satellite, except substantially cheaper and much more versatile. And, you can get it back when you’re done.

It’s a little bit hard to tell from the video, but these UAVs are big. The Solara 50 is 15 meters long with a wingspan of 50 meters, and there’s an even larger one called the Solara 60, with a 60-meter wingspan. Despite its size, the Solara 50 only weighs 160 kilograms, and it can carry a 30 kg payload, which is fairly respectable.

What makes the Solara actually functional as an atmospheric satellite are two things. The first is the altitude that it’s designed to fly at: at 20,000 meters, you’re above pretty much everything. You’re looking down on clouds and weather, and the winds and temperatures are generally very stable, or at least predictable. Being that high also gives you a field of view encompassing about 45,000 square kilometers. If you were to, say, mount a cellular base station on a Solara, it would take over for a hundred cell towers on the ground.

The second thing that makes Solara work is that it’s solar powered. Every available surface on the wings and tail are covered in solar panels, and there are batteries inside the wings. During the day, Solara generates kilowatts of power, and there’s enough left over in the batteries to provide hundreds of watts all night.

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