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Autonomous solar-powered aircraft completes maiden flight

Image credit: bae systems

A solar-powered aircraft designed to maintain flight operating in the stratosphere for up to a year has taken its maiden flight.

PHASA-35, which has been built in a collaboration between BAE Systems and Prismatic, has a 35m wingspan and is being positioned as an alternative to satellite technology.   

It is designed to operate entirely unmanned in the stratosphere, above the weather and conventional air traffic. BAE said it offers “a persistent and affordable alternative to satellites combined with the flexibility of an aircraft” and suggests it could be used for forest fire detection and maritime surveillance.

The successful flight trials took place at the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Woomera Test Range in South Australia.

They marked the first fully integrated flight test of the PHASA-35 system, which has been built from scratch in just 20 months.

They are the culmination of efforts from a collaborative team of British experts from Prismatic in Hampshire - where two full-sized concept aircraft were built last year - working alongside BAE Systems engineers in Lancashire, where the aircraft underwent further integration testing prior to flight trials.

PHASA-35 is powered by the Sun during the day and by batteries overnight, allowing it to maintain flight.

When connected to other technologies and assets, BAE hopes it will provide both military and commercial customers with capabilities that are not currently available from existing air and space platforms.

The vehicle also has the potential to be used in the delivery of 5G networks and to provide services like disaster relief and border protection at a fraction of the cost of satellites.

Ian Muldowney, Engineering Director for BAE Systems, said: “This is an outstanding early result that demonstrates the pace that can be achieved when we bring the best of British capability together.

“To go from design to flight in less than two years shows that we can rise to the challenge the UK Government has set industry to deliver a Future Combat Air System within the next decade.”

Further flight trials are scheduled for later this year, with the possibility that the aircraft could enter initial operations with customers within 12 months of the flight trials programme completion.

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