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The race for alternative remote sensing accelerates (part 2)

Facebook’s Aquila RPAS, moments after its maiden take-off. Image: Facebook

We used to say that a picture is worth a thousand words. But depending on how you capture that image and what it reveals, it turns out to be worth a lot more in monetary value.

This is the second installment in a 2-part article written originally published in the latest issue of Position magazine. If you haven’t already, please read part 1 to learn of the growing hunger for remote sensing data from satellites, aerial platforms and cubesats. This week we look at the new frontier: RPAS and stratospheric balloons.

While most may think of small multi-rotor remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS, also known as drones) that you see at a wedding or construction site, there are also far larger, fixed wing, programmable solutions that you are far less likely to see. These are the type you might typically expect in a war zone, but are already being introduced in Australia for the likes of constantly monitoring gas pipelines and environmental monitoring. While the international aviation community grapples with setting the necessary provisions of these platforms, the technology is evolving for these platform to fly permanently at high altitude.

Airbus Defence and Space this year announced the successful maiden flight of its Zephyr T aircraft, an RPAS powered only by sunshine. Six decades after Sputnik launched the space race, the European firm joins the likes of NASA and Facebook in a race to build high-altitude RPAS that combine the advantages of a satellite and the flexibility of a plane.

The solar powered Zephyr T (top) and Zephyr S (bottom) RPAS, with wingspans of 33 metres and 24 metres respectively. Image: Airbus Defense & Space

Airbus’ solar-powered planes are designed to cruise at around 20km, nearly twice the altitude of commercial airliners, yet far below the 400-600km orbit of imaging satellites. The Zephyr 7 prototype can fly for 14 days on end and Airbus plans to get that up to at least a month with two new models, the Zephyr S and Zephyr T. The British Ministry of Defense has contracted the first two S models.

Airbus, however, are not alone in this leg of the race. Solar Impulse, developers of Swiss solar aircraft are developing a solution capable of remaining aloft for six months.

Facebook are also deep into plans to provide global wireless internet everywhere on Earth. The solar-powered Aquila RPAS from Facebook weighs only 400kg, but with a 34m wingspan, is the size of Boeing 737. After Aquila’s maiden flight this year, Facebook hopes to soon have a fleet of Aquilas that can fly for at least three months at a time at 18kms. Why not throw an imagery sensor on each of them, while they’re at it?

Introducing the stratollite

World View offers their stratollite platform to “fly your payload.” Image: World View

Not to be confused with the stromatolite, the ancient microbial colonies that have been known to exist for 3.5 billion years to this day, the stratollite combines ‘stratosphere’ and ‘satellite’ for a whole new platform.

Essentially, the stratollite is a balloon aimed to carry scientific sensors (and imagery sensors) into the stratosphere, without the need for costly launching procedures.

World View (not to be confused for DigitalGlobe’s WorldView satellites) is an Arizona-based company focussed solely on stratollites. World View claim to be able to launch stratollite balloons for a host of missions into Earth’s atmosphere up to an altitude of 46km, for months at a time. World View’s director of marketing and communications Andrew Antonio, says they are able to do this “orders of magnitude more affordable” than any existing technologies. Their business is targeted to remote sensing, weather, communications and research applications.

Australia’s scientific research organisation, CSIRO, recently committed to a similar technology by signing a cooperation agreement with the French space agency. The agreement, signed in 2016, covers the 2017 launch of a stratospheric scientific balloon research program known as PILOT from the NASA/CSIRO base in Alice Springs.

While this particular project is aimed not at observing earth, but rather mapping our galaxy’s magnetic field, it shows that The PILOT telescope, which weighs more than can be transported 40 kilometres in altitude by a stratospheric balloon filled with 800,000 cubic metres of helium.

A blurry image of the future

There will be many ways to acquire imagery in the near future, and it’s impossible to say which methods will continue to have market relevance. It’s safe to say, however that the cost to acquire insights from above will progressively become more affordable. New alternative solutions will feed the needs of a growing community of diverse end users. By filling the middle ground between satellite and aerial imagery, the above platforms will lead to applications we cannot yet perceive.

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