Both the aerospace and tech worlds have been abuzz today with a story that I feel a little bit of a personal connection to. Todays’ buzz has been surrounding the news that Google has purchased New Mexico based drone maker Titan Aerospace. Titan is developing jet-sized drones – such as the Solara 50 and Solara 60 – which can fly continuously for about five years using solar energy.
Google’s plan is to use these aircraft to transmit internet signals to areas with no pylons or telephone lines. In this endeavor, Titan’s unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) could link up with Project Loon, Google’s scheme involving solar-powered internet-transmitting balloons, which was launched last summer.
Other uses Google may have for Titan’s UAV technology could be to collect images for projects, such as Google Maps and Google Earth. The drones could also work with an early stage Google project called Makani, which is developing an airborne wind turbine for efficient electricity generation. Beyond Google, the drones could help solve other problems, including disaster relief and environmental damage like deforestation and they would have applications in search-and-rescue aid and crop monitoring.
The Solara 50, which should fly later this summer, employs an ultra light airframe supported by a 164 ft. long wing adorned with thousands of high efficiency solar cells. The solar powered capabilities inherent in the design allow Solara to stay aloft for months, even years at a time, at altitudes as lofty as FL650 (65,000 feet). During the day, solar energy powers the propulsion system as well as the payload, while it also charges the onboard batteries for use in the evening.
Titan expects that the Solara could, “open the door for stationing payloads near the edge of earth’s atmosphere. Unlike space satellites, the Solara is far less expensive to buy and launch, has a larger launch window, and most importantly, can easily be brought back for maintenance or payload upgrades. This allows the flexibility of flying different missions with the same serviceable airframe.”
Expectations are that Titan CEO Vern Raburn will stay with the company and supervise the transition from startup to properly funded R&D venture. Raburn remains intent on getting the Solara 50 into its test flight program this summer and building the company from there. Titan Aerospace’s 20 employees will remain in New Mexico.
Presented here are two Solara videos, one a brief news report and the second a promotional video released by Titan Aerospace:
Titan Aerospace unveils the world’s first solar-powered UAVs
Titan Aerospace Solara 50
Besides its obvious aerospace and tech aspects, this story holds a bit of a personal connection to me on two other fronts. During the 8 years that I lived near Albuquerque, New Mexico, Vern Raburn was involved in an earlier New Mexico aerospace and tech startup venture, Eclipse Aviation, which manufactured the Eclipse 500 very light jet (VLJ). Raburn was a former Microsoft employee and due to his relationship with Microsoft, Bill Gates was a major stake-holder in the Eclipse project.
For a time, I considered employment opportunities with Eclipse which would have been a good fit with my former aviation related training and experience. For a variety of reasons, I decided not to pursue the opportunities. In hind-sight, that was a good decision as Eclipse later failed and went bankrupt.
The second connection I have with this story is a recent introduction that was made between me and a New Mexico modeler who is developing his own solar powered model airplane. Leo Orlowicz is working on applying solar power capabilities to his electric models. His R&D efforts are not yet up to the scale of Titan Aerospace’s but he does report the following:
“As for the solar powered airplane there are obstacles that have to be solved. One is to locate a smaller and lighter solar panel (that’s a big one). At present, the solar plane’s panel is connected directly to the motor with no off and on control as well as speed control. My theory is in regular R/C, Lipo Battery solar power has to go to a central collection point to be called on when the battery reaches a low point and more power is called upon, allowing a longer electric flight. Of course the Lipo Battery must be fully charged before calling on the solar power. In theory, this should work??? The obstacles will be resolved.”
Here is a photo of Leo’s plane with the current solar panel mounted over the cabin:
(Click on the photo to get a larger image with higher resolution)