Techcrunch reports Facebook is buying Titan Aerospace, makers of near-orbital, solar-powered drones which can fly for five years without needing to land. According to a source with access to information about the deal, the price for this acquisition is $60 million.
Facebook is interested in using these high-flying drones to blanket parts of the world without Internet access, beginning with Africa. The company would start by building 11,000 of these unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), specifically the “Solara 60″ model.
An atmospheric satellite is a drone that can conduct most of the operations of an orbital satellite, but is much cheaper and more versatile.
Among the applications of a Solara aircraft there are disaster recovery, weather monitoring, communications relay, oceanographic research and earth imaging.
According to reports, Solara 50 and 60 can be launched at night using power from internal battery banks.
When the sun rises, the solar panels covering the crafts’ wings and tails, store enough energy to allow them ascend to a position of 20 km above the sea level and to stay aloft continuously for five years, without ever having to land and refuel.
The aircrafts will operate in an atmospheric sweet spot known as the tropopause where winds are generally less than 5 knots.
Despite its massive dimensions, Solara 50 only weighs about 160 kg, and can carry a payload of 32 kg. According to reports, differently from satellites, it is possible to get the payload back at the end of its five years endurance.
As for the speed, Solara 50 can travel at 104 kilometres an hour (about 64 MPH).
According to reports, smaller versions of Solara have already flown, and Titan Aerospace is planning to start selling operational systems in less than a year which opens up possibilities like regional internet or a version of Google Maps with real-time images.
The Solara 50 and 60 models can be launched at night using power from internal battery packs, then when the sun rises, they can store enough energy to ascend to 20KM above sea level where they can remain for five years without needing to land or refuel. Such capabilities make them ideal for regional Internet system
Ars Technica reports that the Solara 50 has a 50 meters (164 feet) wingspan. The upper surfaces of its wings and tail are packed with over 3,000 photovoltaic cells capable of generating up to 7 kilowatts. It is launched by catapult and can land (when it has to) by skidding on its Kevlar-coated underside. Unlike the giant flying-wing configurations of the Helios and Zephyr, which had large numbers of propellers, the Solara has a single, high-efficiency motor.
In theory, a solar-powered drone capable of withstanding long flights at high altitude—in what Titan executives call the “sweet spot” in the Earth’s atmosphere between 60,000 and 70,000 feet, above nearly all weather patterns in a zone where winds are typically less than 5 knots (5.75 miles/hour)—would be able to perform tasks usually reserved for satellites at a much lower cost.
For example, during a presentation by Titan at AVUSA, a company spokesperson compared using a satellite for multispectral Earth imagery—say, like Landsat’s—to using an atmospheric satellite. A drone could be put up quickly, for much less initial capital. At the same time, it would provide targeted imagery at a cost of less than $5 per square kilometer—versus $35 per square kilometer from a satellite—while still offering the large area of coverage of a satellite.
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