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Solar-powered Solara UAV could stay aloft for years

This "atmospheric satellite" flies at 65,000 feet, and could provide satellite-style services for a fraction of the cost.

The Solara 60 will have a 196-foot wingspan.
Titan Aerospace

So-called high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) UAVs like the Global Hawk have been around for a while, but a New Mexico startup wants to launch gigantic drones that won't have to land for years.

Titan Aerospace recently showed off its designs for the Solara 50 and 60, solar-powered unmanned flyers that it calls "atmospheric satellites."

They're designed to be a fraction of the cost of a satellite while delivering a range of functionality from forest fire and atmospheric monitoring to live mapping and narcotics tracking.

Both would feature massive wings, more than 160 feet across and covered with thousands of solar cells drawing solar energy and storing it in lithium ion batteries for night flying.

The Solaras would fly at tropopause altitudes of around 65,000 feet (more than 12 miles), where the winds are fairly weak, and stay aloft for up to five years.

That period is based on the lifespan of components such as batteries; improvements could leave them up in the air for longer. Meanwhile, they could carry up to 70 pounds of sensors and instruments.

Titan has already flown smaller versions of the drones, and wants to sell full-size ones in less than a year. A variety of services could supplement those provided by traditional satellites.

Using the Solara platform could cost less than $2 million, according to a Forbes report that quotes Dustin Sanders, Titan's chief electrical engineer, as saying, "We're trying to do a single-million-dollar-per-aircraft platform. And the operation cost is almost nothing -- you're paying some dude to watch the payload and make sure the aircraft doesn't do anything stupid."

Check out more about the Solara here, and the promo vid below.

(Via IEEE Spectrum)