Sunglider solar driven unmanned aerial system reaches new heights achieving over 62,000 feet in altitude on test flight


igh altitude pseudo-satellites (HAPS) from a number of manufacturers are undergoing tests as alternatives to earth orbit satellites for military and defence purposes as well as providing broadband in areas of the world without coverage. One such HAPS is the Sunglider aircraft, a solar-powered unmanned aerial system (UAS) produced by HAPSMobile and AeroVironment. Towards the end of 2020, the consortium flew the vehicle under test from Spaceport America in New Mexico, achieving an altitude of 62,500 feet (about 19km).

Designed as a sub-orbital platform for telecommunications, the unmanned Sunglider is intended for long period flights to provide sustained

communications. On this occasion, the flight lasted just over 20 hours with five hours and 30 minutes of that time being spent in the stratosphere. The stratosphere presented the UAS with extremely demanding conditions with temperatures plummeting to lows of -73C and wind speeds of up to 58 knots or around 30mps. Using all-electric power, the Sunglider was launched on a pre-flight battery charge and had to use just solar energy to maintain its flight. The UAS has a wingspan of 262ft (almost 80m) and is propelled by 10 electric motors powered by solar panels covering the surface of the wing and rechargeable battery packs, resulting in zero emissions. It can carry payloads weighing as much as 150 pounds and is designed for continuous, extended missions of months without landing. According to Sunglider’s manufacturer, AeroVironment, the vehicle successfully achieved major test objectives relating to propulsion, power systems, flight control, navigation and datalink integrity, as well as structural performance during the most

26 /// Testing & Test Houses /// June 2021

turbulent phases of the flight as it entered and exited the jet stream. Speaking after the successful flight, AeroVironment’s president and CEO, Wahid Nawabi, noted that in the less than three years since the project started, the company and HAPSMobile had jointly made incredible progress, developing two Sunglider solar HAPS unmanned aircraft and performing five consecutive flight demonstrations, culminating in this latest milestone.

“Reaching stratospheric altitude, maintaining continuous flight for more than 20 hours, achieving key test objectives and demonstrating seamless broadband communication illustrate the tremendous potential HAPS technology offers to expand connectivity globally,” he says. For the Sunglider to be viable as a

❱❱ The Sunglider took off from Space Port America in New Mexico towards the end of 2020 to prove the viability of using electric UAVs as pseudo-satellites

commercial project, it will need to overcome the hurdle of certification. The advantage of stratospheric balloons not requiring certification isn’t currently shared with UAVs and so Sunglider will need aircraft authorisation in order to be able to fly missions. “We look forward to maintaining our momentum towards aircraft certification and commercialisation, working in close partnership with HAPSMobile as we establish a new capability that offers tremendous value,” says Nawabi.

COMMUNICATION PAYLOAD In addition to reaching the stratospheric flight milestone, an Internet connectivity test using a communications payload jointly developed with Loon was successfully performed during the test

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