On October 4th, 1957, Russia launched the Sputnik satellite into low-Earth orbit, setting off the Space Race and the golden age of space exploration. 56 years later, and our atmosphere is cluttered with single-use satellites. A new idea replaces satellites with much cheaper solar-powered drones that are cheaper, cover a wider area, and are reusable many times over.
Titan Aerospace has developed a drone with a 50-meter/164 foot wingspan covered in solar panels that can fly for up to 5 years at at a time at heights of around 65,000 feet. Called the Solara 50, these drones are designed to charge up during the day to have enough power to fly all night, and could be equipped to do many of the same functions as satellites and communications towers.
According to Titan, a single Solara 50 drone could do the job of hundreds of cellphone towers, covering an area of 17,000 square miles without the cost of launching a satellite into orbit. More importantly, these drones could land and be repaired relatively inexpensively, and could be used more than once, unlike satellites which either clutter low-Earth orbit or fall to the planet in bits and pieces.
Solar-powered planes have already made some impressive flights, albeit slowly, but the Titan Solara 50 doesn’t need to go fast; it just needs to stay afloat. That could make it very appealing to commercial customers looking for a cheaper alternative to launching a satellite, and it could begin a new era of affordable communications all over the world.
While solar-powered commercial airplanes are still a sci-fi dream, solar-powered drones make a surprising amount of sense when one considers that a single satellite launch can cost between $50 million and $400 million…not including the cost of the satellite itself!