AeroVironment joins high-altitude pseudo-satellite race

Helios prototype (NASA) The solar-electric Helios Prototype flying wing is shown near the Hawaiian islands of Niihau and Lehua during its first test flight on solar power

3 January 2018

California unmanned air systems maker AeroVironment has teamed up with Japanese telecommunications group SoftBank to develop a solar-powered high-altitude pseudo-satellite. Performance and applications have not been specified, but the work will be carried out under a $100m joint venture, HAPSMobile, 95% owned by SoftBank and 5% by AeroVironment, which has an option to increase its stake to 19%. HAPSMobile will fund the development programme up to $65m. AeroVironment supplies US armed forces with tactical unmanned air systems for local observation and had a storied history in high-altitude, long-endurance systems; its Helios prototype reached an altitude of 96,863ft in 2001, setting the world-record for sustained horizontal flight by a winged aircraft.

Helios was developed under NASA’s Environmental Research Aircraft and Sensor Technology project, and aimed to demonstrate sustained flight at an altitude near 100,000ft and flying non-stop for at least 24hrs, including at least 14hrs above 50,000ft. NASA describes the aircraft – with a wingpan of 247ft (75m) but weighing just 1,322lbs (600kg) – as the “forerunner of 21st century solar-powered ‘atmospheric satellites'”.