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British solar-powered drone could be the answer to ‘space junk’

The drone will launch in the middle of this decade (Picture: BAE systems)

A British company has come up with a solution to space junk, the proliferation of defunct satellites cluttering space – a solar powered drone.

The 115ft wide drone can fly above 70,000ft for more than 20 months, using the sun’s energy to charge its battery bank and keep airborne.

The drone, unlike satellites, wouldn’t need to be decommissioned at the end of its life, making it a less dangerous alternative for tasks like observation and communications.

PHASA-35, built by BAE systems in Warton, Lancashire, can carry up to 15kg of cameras, sensors and high-tech equipment, allowing it to perform services like internet access in rural areas during natural disasters or emergencies.

The drone can monitor for natural disasters and emergencies, providing support from above (Picture: BAE systems)

Available by the middle of the decade, one potential use for the drone would be observing troop movements or maritime activities in a constant stream – as opposed to the timestamped snapshots provided by satellites.

While the drone has yet to make its first stratospheric flight, it successfully completed its first test flight last year in Australia, with plans for higher altitude flights in the US this summer.

BAE systems said the new drone will offer ‘game-changing capabilities for a wide range of military and commercial uses.

These range from the surveillance of forest areas to detect and help control forest fires, to the provision of internet access in remote areas.’

Services typically covered by low Earth orbit satellites are just as doable by drone, the company says, including environmental surveillance, disaster relief, border protection, maritime and military surveillance and mobile internet communications.

BAE systems envisage the drone carrying out the same responsibilities as low earth satellites. (Picture: BAE systems)

Though its window to launch will be relatively slim, the extended periods the drone can stay flying makes this less of an issue.

The lack of a landing gear could also present problems for reusability after landing – but BAE insists the drones land at walking pace and are lightweight.

While the exact use for the drone is yet undecided, the ability to install different sensors on the drone give it a certain amount of flexibility.

One example given by BAE was the ability fly over vulnerable forests and monitor moisture levels in the trees for months at a time with a custom sensor, predicting within weeks when a forest fire might break out.

The drone will recharge using the sun’s energy (Picture: BAE systems)
BAE systems hope the drone can reduce the amount of space junk (Picture: BAE systems)

The drones’ position, in the stratosphere, or above 70,000ft, means they can avoid weather issues like wind and rain and give stable observations of specific ground areas for long periods.

During the day, radiation from the sun will power the craft through 30% efficient solar cells as it flies through the sky, and recharge ‘off the shelf’ commercial mobile batteries stored in the plane.

Then, when night falls the drone will be powered by the batteries, with the option to reduce the altitude to save battery life or continue flying at a higher altitude.

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