Solar-powered Sunglider UAV soars to new heights at Spaceport America
An unmanned aircraft designed for high-altitude communications has edged closer to the real-world applications, with the HAPSMobile Sunglider successfully completing another round of testing in New Mexico. The solar-powered aircraft soared to new heights after taking off from Spaceport America, with the team now eyeing off test runs at stratospheric altitudes.
The high altitude platform system (HAPS) aircraft is a collaborative effort between HAPSMobile, a subsidiary of Japanese firm Softbank, and aircraft systems developer AeroVironment. The concept was recently renamed Sunglider, and calls to mind other high altitude long endurance (HALE) aircraft like Facebook’s solar-powered Aquila drone that was designed to beam internet coverage down to developing areas, though was abandoned in 2018.
The Sunglider also draws power from solar panels spread out along its wings, which span 78 m (255 ft) and feature a total of 10 propellors to make for a top speed of 110 km/h (68 mph). The aircraft is designed to carry telecommunications payloads to the stratosphere and fly at that altitude for months at a time.
In doing so, the team says each aircraft will one day be capable of offering connectivity to an area spanning 200 km (124 mi), and link up with other Sungliders to form larger networks that cover larger areas and serve populations in developing regions.
The first Sunglider was assembled in 2019, when it was known as the HAWK30, and the team has since been putting the aircraft through its paces with a series of low-level test flights. The most recent of these took place at Spaceport America on July 23, the fourth outing for the Sunglider, which saw it fly to its highest altitude yet.
This marked the completion of the basic aircraft tests for Sunglider, with the team carrying out flight speed changes, steep turns, inflight balance control and automated flight control to simulate safety measures in the event of a breakdown in communications from the ground.
HAPSMobile has built itself a dedicated test site at Spaceport America, which is also home to Virgin Galactic’s operations. Here it plans to carry out further test flights and edge its way toward stratospheric altitudes.
“We’re extremely pleased that we successfully completed all basic tests,” says Junichi Miyakawa, President & CEO of HAPSMobile. “The test flight validates the research results we have steadily accumulated, and the graceful flight at our new facility in Spaceport America has given us great confidence. Based on our experience and learnings from these basic tests, I feel there are even greater possibilities for the HAPS business. We’ll continue to work toward our ultimate goal of bridging the world’s digital divide and revolutionizing mobile connectivity by leveraging the HAPS platform.”
The video below offers an overview of HAPSMobile’s vision for the Sunglider aircraft.