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New Pilotless Aircraft Could Be A Cheaper Alternative to Launching Satellites

Dominique Adams


The Phoenix UAV

Designed to stay in the air indefinitely, the solar-powered unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) could be launched commercially within just a few years. 

Scientists at the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) have helped to develop a new type of “ultra-long-range endurance” pilotless aircraft.

Designed to be totally self-sufficient, the Phoenix aircraft uses an innovative propulsion system to propel itself through the air. The craft uses helium to float and pumps compressed air out of a rear-facing vent to generate thrust.

Professor of engineering at UHI, Andrew Rae, who led the design of Phoenix, said: “The energy needed to power its pumps and valves is provided by a battery, which is charged by lightweight flexible solar cells on its wings and tail.

“Vehicles based on this technology could be used as pseudo-satellites and would provide a much cheaper option for telecommunication activities.

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“Current equivalent aeroplanes are very complex and very expensive. By contrast, Phoenix is almost expendable and so provides a user with previously unavailable options.”

15m (50ft) long with a mass of 120kg (19st) using variable-buoyancy, a technique already used in underwater drones, the craft is able to ascend and descend effortlessly – Phoenix is the first UAV of its size to use this method of flight.

Last month, the prototype was flown a distance of 120m during an indoor trial at the Drystack facility in Portsmouth. The trial marked the culmination of a three-year project to prove the viability of a variable-buoyancy powered aircraft.

The consortium behind Phoenix also includes representatives from industry and number of other universities such as Bristol, Newcastle and Southampton, and was part-funded by Innovate UK.

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In the future, the craft could potentially be used to release micro-satellites or be deployed in surveillance projects. In addition, it is cheaper to build and operate Phoenix compared to conventional drones. But, to do this, the craft would need to be scaled up to enable it to reach 70,000ft required to preform these tasks.

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Dominique Adams

Marketing Content Manager, Trickle

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