Published on August 29th, 2013 | by Jake Richardson


Huge Solar Plane Could Fly For Five Years

August 29th, 2013 by  

Image Credit: Titan Aerospace

A solar-powered high-altitude drone made by Titan Aerospace is intended to be able to remain in flight for about five years. When manufactured, it would have 3,000 solar panels producing about 7 kW of electricity and would be above the clouds, so it would be exposed to sunlight constantly during daylight hours. One is scheduled for completion next year.

The point of having such a plane would be to keep a payload in flight long-term, presumably in a manner similar to communications satellites. They could be used for surveillance applications such as environmental monitoring, fire monitoring and disaster response, among other things.

Using a long-term solar drone/plane also has the advantage of being a vessel that can be safely brought back down to ground level, so old payloads can be offloaded, or repaired. News ones can be put in place and then the plane can re-ascend to continue its solar-powered flight.

Another potential advantage is cost. Some satellites cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Just getting them up to the desired altitude can be extremely expensive.  One they are there, they can be damaged or break down and they become space junk.

Launching satellites into space also produces rocket fuel emissions, which may impact climate change, “The Aerospace study has shown that black carbon particles emitted by hydrocarbon-fueled rockets could play a role in climate change in coming decades. Funded by the Aerospace Research and Program  Development Office and other agencies, it is the first study of the effects that rocket exhaust could have on the climate system. Black-carbon particles produced by hydrocarbon-fueled rockets could be significant because rocket exhaust is the only direct source of human-produced compounds in the atmosphere above approximately 20 kilometers (12 miles). Rockets also emit carbon dioxide, water vapor, and other compounds that absorb thermal energy, but soot particles have possibly the greatest potential—on a kilogram-for-kilogram basis— to promote climate change.  (Source: Aerospace.org)

In 2009, Japan launched a satellite to monitor greenhouse gases which probably caused the emission of some at the same time.

Check out our new 93-page EV report, based on over 2,000 surveys collected from EV drivers in 49 of 50 US states, 26 European countries, and 9 Canadian provinces.

Tags: , , , ,

About the Author

Hello, I have been writing online for some time, and enjoy the outdoors. If you like, you can follow me on Google Plus.

  • Wayne Williamson

    Cool, just can’t imagine that any sort of space launched activity would be considered polluting. Sounds just silly and I’m surprised to see it pointed out.

    • eject

      Of course it is, but it will probably cool not warm the atmosphere

  • Kevin McGinnis

    The article mentions other uses for the planes like surveillance, which makes me wonder how many of these are planned to be constructed if the first one turns out well. Also, what is the plane going to be doing when it is night time since it is supposedly able to stay in the air for 5 years?

    • Bob_Wallace

      Perhaps do wildfire surveillance in the West as our forests burn year round.

    • eject

      Well, 100-150kg payload. That is enough for a tactical nuke. If it will stay up properly high there are not many countries that are able to shoot them down, especially as they will go properly fast in thin atmosphere.

      Given the amount of money that is still pumped in submarines this seems to be a cost effective thing to be able to strike anywhere at anytime.

      Don’t seriously assume they will go for the sensible projects, being able to kill people is always first priority.

  • agelbert

    I believe solar powered aircraft are the future of aviation as a whole, not just for observation purposes.

    Something never widely discussed about aviation but something I am well acquainted with is the amount of power you need from an aircraft internal combustion engine. I flew light twins for an air taxi many years ago as well as having been a flight instructor for a couple of years.

    My point is that you need less than 20% of engine power to stay aloft once you get to cruising altitude. Therefore, if you put a hydrogen fuel cell auxiliary engine on a solar powered passenger aircraft for use during takeoff and climb out only, you would have a hybrid solar powered aircraft that could perform as well or better than a modern jumbo jet.

    As far as observation is concerned, balloons or dirigibles with solar cells can do the trick quite nicely.

    Considering the huge surface area (ideal for solar cell placement) that dirigibles have, I’m surprised passenger dirigibles for sightseeing or island hopping tourism haven’t been built.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Wouldn’t you be limited to prop speed?

      • agelbert

        Yes. However, there is a trick to that “speed” business that I will let you in on.

        At around 70,000 feet, where the U2 type aircraft flies (notice the wings on this jet aircraft are shaped like a glider’s wings), the speed over the ground is above 400 mph. However, the indicated airspeed is about 100 mph. It takes off at a mere 81 mph.

        My point is that a prop plane (with very large props) can fly quite fast as long as it flies in very thin air. To the aircraft, it’s the air going over the wings that count. The main reason prop planes didn’t fly higher was because their engines couldn’t handle it. The Russian bomber with turboprop engines flies very high.

        So, a plane that can only fly at a cruising airspeed (and ground speed as well) of, say 130 mph within 10,000 feet of the ground will fly above 400 mph over the ground when it is at 70,000 feet.

        There isn’t much turbulence up there, either. With solar power and a booster engine, once you get up there, you can move along as fast as any passenger, swept wing jet can today.

        Mach 1 is the speed of sound. Here’s a table of calibrated (indicated airspeed -air molecules hitting to pitot tube -corrected for any instrument error) at the speed of sound for different altitudes:

        Altitude..CAS @ M=1.0 (knots)

        0,000 ft CAS = 661.41
        10,000 ft CAS = 561.21
        20,000 ft CAS = 475.12
        30,000 ft CAS = 389.87
        40,000 ft CAS = 312.52
        50,000 ft CAS = 248.27
        60,000 ft CAS = 196.51
        70,000 ft CAS = 155.17
        75,000 ft CAS = 137.80
        80,000 ft CAS = 122.33
        85,000 ft CAS = 108.58
        90,000 ft CAS = 96

    • J_JamesM

      I’m pretty much the closest thing to an airship expert there is, and rest assured that balloons are simply not an option. Theoretically, they work, but the reality is that their near-complete lack of anything resembling directional control basically makes them intermittently useful at best.

      Solar airships are pretty much the only way to go. Solar planes are actually SLOWER, believe it or not, and more vulnerable to the weather. The simply don’t have the surface area necessary to weather storms or move quickly. They’re underpowered. They operate on extremely slim operational margins, and on something with so few redundancies, disaster is never far away.

      Airships, on the other hand, have colossal lift. Not only can you carry more payload than a plane, you can do it more safely and economically. In 2014, Canada will be flying a solar powered hybrid airship. It’s delta-shaped, for a wind profile a tiny fraction as much as a cigar-shaped airship, as well as generating aerodynamic lift like a plane (which greatly helps control, helium use and payload) and giving the largest possible area for solar panels.

      • agelbert

        I think I saw an artist’s conception of that delta wing solar powered airship you are talking about. It sounds great to me. It hope they are successful.
        I think solar powered aircraft will get faster as the technology improves. Right now they have a ridiculously tiny operating airspeed envelope to maximize lift and minimize drag. When they can strap on a fuel cell powered booster engine to takeoff and reach cruising altitude, they can increase gross weight (and beef up the wing for higher velocities).
        It will take a while but I think both the solar powered airships (because they need no airport) and aircraft will have a role in tomorrow’s aviation.
        The only time I “flew” an airship was in a simulator and I had a lot of difficulties with maintaining the thing pointing at the horizon instead of up or down pitch attitudes. I guess the ballast balancing takes some getting used to.
        Do you have any ‘war’ stories you want to share about turbulence in an airship? I would be interested in knowing how the handle in rough air.

        • J_JamesM

          Oh, the Canadians are far removed from the concept phase. They’ve flown three different manned prototypes thus far. The one flying in 2014 is the full-scale production version outfitted with solar panels.

          As for how airships handle in the roughest conditions the sky has to offer, that’s a tricky question. The extent of my experience has been a few run-ins with a Zeppelin and a small homebuilt blimp, so I wouldn’t know. But before my time, in the 1950s, there was a U.S. naval program that sent the long-forgotten ZPG-series airships well into the Arctic circle to test their mettle.

          Now, bear in mind, this was sixty years ago. The ZPG airships were conventional, cigar-shaped LTA (Lighter-Than-Air) blimps, with no rigid hull structure or keel. We have Kevlar, carbon fiber and Vectran that’s stronger than steel nowadays, but back then it was just doped fabric. They had no thrust vectoring back then, either, so maneuvering is about as difficult as you might expect, and a cigar hull shape like that blows like a giant sail in the wind. Long story short, they’re about as far removed from the ideal design for a rugged all-weather airship as you could possibly get by modern standards.

          On top of that, the weather in the Arctic at the time was the worst they’d had in years. 65 mph winds, vicious blizzards, fog, unbelievable temperatures. All military and commercial aircraft were grounded.

          So how did they perform? Well, commander Gorder put it best:

          “Never in the two years that I ran the project did a ship ever drift or get blown off the runway. One airship flew in continuous icing conditions for 56 hours, the record on station was 96 1/2 hours. Takeoffs and landings were made with ceilings under 100 feet during snowstorms, and with winds from 30 to 50 knots.”

          • agelbert

            I’m sold!
            I hope to see that Canadian airship soon.
            A small version like an ultralight, but as a solar powered airship, would be something I would love to have. I flew Quicksilver MXL ultralights and taught in them back in the 1990s.

          • J_JamesM

            Ooo, you’re going to love what I have to tell you next…

            These airships are built in partnership with Zenair, a bushplane builder. The gondola of one of the prototypes is really a converted, stretch-limo bushplane, with rechargeable batteries in the floor. The center engine is the standard piston engine, but the wings have been replaced with a pair of electric motors. The inflatable hull itself is very, very small, and gets most of its lift from aerodynamics.

            What all this means is that it costs about a fifth as much as a De Haviland Beaver, but can carry far more. And that’s for a large cargo-carrying version.

            The first prototype is a tiny, one-man, 30-foot ship. One or two engines. Can be inflated with air or Helium, depending on how much you need the 30% boost in lift. It flies really smooth and lands very readily, with great STOL performance and a stall speed that’s practically nonexistent. No telling how much it cost, but probably very little.

          • Heliumhead

            Mankind has actually built and flown roughly twenty different models of manned airships (no rigids or semi-rigids) since the Hindenberg burned while landing at NAS Lakehurst in the late 30’s. (compared to seventy VTOL fixed-wing aircraft.) Most built by a single company, Goodyear.

            You’re describing a high drag aircraft with a little buoyant lift. Even the cockeyed optimists, like Lockheed-Grumman,
            don’t expect to be able to control a hybrid airship which
            gets more than 30% of its gross lift aerodynamically.
            (L-M actually flew their small prototype, inside airport limits, a few times.)

            ps. I was an in-flight technician and radar operator on the P2V, WV-2 and ZPG-2 in the 1950’s. The Nan-ship was far and away the gentlest electronic platform that ever flew.
            Our worst environment was when we were tied to the mast.

          • J_JamesM

            I don’t doubt it. Masts are pretty much the entire reason so many are switching to hybrid lift. Masting in terrible weather? Good luck!

            Don’t think I was denigrating the nan-ships, though. In fact, I was complimenting them and their pilots- look at how rugged they turned out to be, despite having none of the fancy technology we have today.

            And you basically hit the nail on the head about drag. That’s the compromise hybrid airships have to live with, I’m afraid. They have more drag than a conventional airship. But the resultant loss of efficiency is more than made up by the increase in safety, payload, maneuverability and the ability to go more places, in my opinion.

            But how exactly is control such an issue with only 30% helium lift? Sure, that’s basically the reverse of other hybrids, but they’ve already built and flown three prototypes. It performs more or less like a plane rather than an airship, no surprises there. Are you referring to a center of balance or center of gravity issue, or a maneuverability issue? I’d like you to elaborate in more detail.

          • agelbert

            I’m no expert but with modern vectored thrust and some kind of very long line with a magnetic head on it (or perhaps a tiny drone at the end of the line that finds the mast?), quick masting should be easier to achieve now.

          • agelbert

            Considering the cost of operating and maintaining airports, if large hybrid flying machines that used helium and solar electric (with a back up fuel cell powered internal combustion hydrogen engine) could be the main cargo movers, they would be cost effective with the added plus of saving wear and tear on roads.

            Of course the customs nazis in every country would be in a tizzy over the ability to land cargo anywhere. LOL!

            Shades of Hans Solo’s Millennium Falcon! http://www.pic4ever.com/images/balloons.gif

      • Olivia Salmonsen

        Yay!! I want these in America. I want airtickets to be cheaper!

Back to Top ↑