Internet access from the stratosphere comes closer

Internet access from the stratosphere comes closer

Technology News |
By Christoph Hammerschmidt

Autonomous solar-powered motor-gliders, flying at high altitudes could in the future be used to establish comprehensive internet access. But so far, only tiny prototypes with an even tinier payload have been used to test this concept. Now Elektra-2 pushed the limits farther: The plane can carry a payload of 100 kilograms to the stratosphere. The solar-powered Elektra-2 took off for its maiden flight in the skies over Switzerland. The plane, developed by Elektra-Solar GmbH, a spin-off from German aerospace research center DLR, has been purpose-designed to carry such payloads into an altitude of 20 kilometers or 66.000 feet. Elektra-2 is equipped with an automatic flight control system developed at DLR. With a weight of just 420 kilograms, the plane is establishing a new world record in solar-powered flying at high altitudes and in weight-to-payload ratio for such planes.

This design makes the vision of internet access from the stratosphere appear a bit closer. Initially, the plane will complete comprehensive flight tests; for 2018, the researchers intend to perform first stratosphere flights and set new altitude records for solar-powered planes. During the first flights, a (human) pilot will take control of the aircraft and the payload will be limited to 50 kilograms. During the experiments, the pilot is supported by the autonomous controller. The next version of the Elektra-2, which is already under construction, will fly extended missions in the stratosphere without a pilot. In addition, a lighter version of the Elektra-2 is currently under development. This version will have no landing gear to save weight. The technique to land planes without a landing gear has already been tested successfully, says Elektra-Solar.

Today, global communications and remote sensing applications are covered to a large extent by satellites in earth orbit. In the future, flying high altitude platforms have good chances to supplement the satellite technology, believes Elektra-Solar: Satellite images are taken in several hundred kilometers in orbit, while stratospheric planes can score with a significantly higher resolution at altitudes of just 20 to 25 kilometers. In addition, operating costs can be significantly reduced compared to satellites, since expensive rocket launching is not necessary and defects can be repaired easily on the ground which makes the entire system more resilient. For the application perspective of the worldwide Internet from the air, high altitude platforms will can offer significantly larger bandwidths than satellites.

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