Conventional satellites may be decent at their jobs, but they do have some drawbacks – the spacecraft themselves are quite expensive, getting them into orbit is also a costly process, and they can’t be reclaimed once they’re in use. Titan Aerospace, however, is offering an alternative that should have none of those problems. The company’s Solara unmanned high-altitude aircraft is intended to serve as an “atmospheric satellite,” autonomously flying in the sky’s upper reaches for as long as five years continuously.

There are actually two models of the Solara in the works. The Solara 50 will have a 50-meter (164-foot) wingspan, a length of 15.5 meters (54 ft), weigh just 159 kg (350 lb), and offer a payload capacity of over 32 kg (70 lb). The larger Solara 60 will be 60 meters (197 feet) across, with the ability to carry up to 100 kg (250 lb).

On either version, the upper wing and tail surfaces of the plane will be covered in approximately 3,000 solar cells, allowing it to generate up to seven kilowatts of power during the day – at a cruising altitude of 20 km (65,000 feet), the aircraft will be above the clouds and unaffected by weather disturbances. Hundreds of watts of that power will be stored in its onboard lithium-ion batteries, to keep its motor, autopilot, sensors and telemetry systems running throughout the night.

Each aircraft will begin its mission by taking off from the ground shortly after midnight, then climbing to its cruising altitude using its own battery power. It will then have all of the next day to recharge its battery using sunlight, thus beginning a charging-and-storing cycle that could reportedly continue for up to five years. At the end of its mission, the airplane will return to the ground, allowing its cargo to be recovered and its parts to be salvaged.

The Solara’s cruising speed will be about 104 km/h (65 mph), and it will have an operating range of over 4.5 million kilometers (about 2.8 million miles). That said, most of the aircraft’s uses will likely involve it flying in circles over a given area. These uses could include surveillance, asset tracking, live mapping, or the monitoring of crops, weather, disaster sites, or pretty much anything else that a low-altitude satellite might keep tabs on.

Additionally, Titan points out that one of the aircraft could provide cell phone coverage for an area of over 6,500 square miles (16,800 sq km), offering the reach of over 100 ground-based towers.

The company has reportedly already flown smaller prototypes, and hopes to have the full-sized Solara 50 and 60 available with a year. There’s currently no word on price, but you can see some pretty animation of one flying in the video below.

Lockheed Martin is working on an aircraft that would serve some of the same functions as the Solara, in the form of its HALE-D high-altitude unmanned airship.

View gallery - 12 images