Solar Drones

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Founded in 2012, Titan Aerospace of New Mexico aims to create solar-powered unmanned aircraft to act as satellites with years-long flight durations. The company has two models in the works: the Solara 50 and the Solara 60, with the numbers referring to each vehicle's wingspan in meters. Both are being designed to fly autonomously at cruising altitudes of roughly 65,000 feet. The company believes it can generate approximately seven kilowatts of power during the day from some 3,000 solar cells on the aircraft's upper wing and tail and fly off stored energy (lithium-ion batteries) at night. With that charging cycle, it hopes to achieve flight durations of up to five years.

The mission profile of the Solara vehicles includes a takeoff after midnight on battery power. Long-endurance flights serving as retrievable in-atmosphere satellites would end with the aircraft's return, upon which it would be salvaged. The company lists the Solara's cruising range at 65 mph and estimates its range at 2.8 million miles, which, in practice, would likely be spent flying in circles over specific observation points or areas to which it may help provide cellphone coverage. For cellphone missions, Titan estimates that 6,500 square miles of geography could be served by one Solara, effectively taking the place of 100 cellphone towers on the ground. Other applications suggested by the company include industrial science, law enforcement and surveillance, and rapid response.