Dear Colleagues,

It is the nightmare scenario for any major engineering infrastructure investment – the arrival of something smaller, better and considerably cheaper which rapidly makes the original investment worthless. We see this happening all the time in a range of items ranging from phones to books.

This is what is perhaps going to happen with satellites with the recent launch of high altitude pseudo satellites.

This is a great example of leveraging engineering opportunities and developing technology.

Airbus At It
Airbus have recently launched one of these mechanical birds (named Zephyr) – an unmanned ultra light solar-powered propeller driven plane. It has a 23 m wingspan and weight of 50kg and flies at an altitude of 21kms (with the sun fully up) and down to 15km when the sun disappears – just above the damaging weather.

Solar Power Does it All - almost
The solar powered wings produce 1kW per 1kg of panel allowing it to store 350 watt-hours per kg. Theoretically it can stay aloft for months.

However, it needs to stay away from long winter days (as a full recharge of batteries is not achieved). This requires it to remain in the latitude range of 40 degrees north to 40 degrees south. Fortunately, this is where most of the world’s population lives.

The Uses are Myriad
Most of the uses relate to communications (cells for telephone calls and provision of the internet). And naturally a more sinister use can be for observation or surveillance (something most of the world population is subjected to at some time or other).

And naturally these planes are cheap. A fraction of the cost of a satellite.

Questions Remain
Remember that satellites like old dogs are happy to sit well above the weather and are nuclear powered so are probably considerably more reliable than these new planes. But there are solutions to the reliability problem with multiple planes. They are cheap.

The low cost of this game changer (being considerably less than a satellite) is probably what will drive their success.

As Albert Einstein remarked: Imagination is more important than knowledge...

Yours in engineering learning,