Two different solar-powered drones are making the news this week. In Switzerland a 5 meter wide drone has just completed an 81-hour (3 days and 9 hours) long, unmanned flight powered only by the sun, cruising at a low altitude, breaking previous low-altitude records. Meanwhile Facebook is announcing its Aquila project, a drone with a wingspan of a 737, is making progress. Both are designed for remote areas. The first is designed for scientific research and disaster recovery, the second to bring Internet connectivity to remote places.
The Swiss drone, AtlantikSolar, made its first 24-hour flight just two weeks ago. It’s gearing up for a much longer flight, too. The unmanned, 5-meter wide, 6.8 kilogram (15 pound) drone and its three siblings are planning to fly across the Atlantic from Boston to Lisbon, Portugal, over 7 days.“With the extreme showcase of an Atlantic Crossing, AtlantikSolar aims to promote the advantages of today's solar-powered Unmanned Aerial Vehicles,” the project states in a pamphlet on the project. “UAVs of this kind are a highly promising concept for multi-day or even multi-week search & rescue support, wildfire detection or meteorological surveys above otherwise unaccessible oceans.” The team behind the drone at ETH Zurich's Autonomous Systems Lab envisions the devices flying for up to 10 days. As the team prepares for the Atlantic crossing, they also will continue to test and use the drones.
"We'll be flying from Belem to the Caxiuana research station in the middle of the rainforest, covering about 400km on solar-power alone," says Philipp Oettershagen, an engineer with the project told Wired. "At the same time, we will be doing aerial mapping with our optical and infrared cameras and recording atmospheric information with our onboard sensors.”
The Facebook drone is also designed for multi-day operations. With the wingspan of a Boeing 737, it’s an entirely different beast however.
“A full-scale version of Aquila—the high-altitude, long-endurance aircraft designed by our aerospace team in the UK—is now complete and ready for flight testing,” Facebook stated. “Aquila has the wingspan of a 737 but weighs hundreds of times less, thanks to its unique design and carbon-fiber frame.” As such it’s more like the size of Solar Impulse. “When deployed, it will be able to circle a remote region for up to 90 days, beaming connectivity down to people from an altitude of 60,000 to 90,000 feet.”
The Facebook drone will communicate with the Internet via a ground-based laser system that Facebook said can deliver data at 10s of gigabytes per second. “Approximately 10x faster than the previous state-of-the-art in the industry.” The company added: “To a target the size of a dime from more than 10 miles away.” The social media giant will use the laser system connect the drones with each other as well as the Internet on the ground. They will beam the Internet via radio waves to locations where it’s not readily available via radio signals.Tweet