SoftBank Group Corp., a Japanese multinational company in collaboration with NASA and U.S. aerospace company AeroVironment is about to test a massive solar-powered drone that can beam 5G connectivity down to practically anywhere in the world.
Dubbed as Hawk 30, the drone is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that features ten electric engines and can fly at altitudes of over 65,600 feet (20 km). It will have a curved “flying wing” design similar to a series of high-altitude solar drones that AeroVironment made for NASA twenty years ago. Filings with the Federal Aviation Administration and the Securities and Exchange Commission suggest the new Hawk will have 10 electric engines and an operational altitude of over 20 kilometers.
According to a November Space Act Agreement with NASA, the Hawk 30 prototype could take place as soon as next week. More test flights will follow within the next three months — an initiative that, if successful, could bring wireless connectivity to the most remote regions globally.
Though, the Hawk 30 won’t be the first UAV that brings connectivity to remote areas. AeroVironment’s previous prototype, the Helios, holds the record of any winged horizontal aircraft. That aircraft was an elegant flying wing wider than a 747 but weighing less than just one of the jumbo jet’s 18 landing wheels.
The Helios still holds the altitude record for a horizontal flight by a winged aircraft, reaching nearly 30 kilometers in 2001. However, the Helios brought NASA’s solar drone research to a sudden end in 2003 when it broke up in high winds during a test flight in Hawaii.
Next, in 2010, AeroVironment built another prototype HALE drone, Global Observer, for the Pentagon. The drone carried communications and surveillance payloads. That program also ended in a crash the following year.
These problems with HALE aircraft did not dissuade Facebook and Google from attempting to develop their own high-altitude, solar-powered drones. Both were seeking new ways to bring Internet access to remote communities in underdeveloped countries worldwide.
Google bought a company called Titan Aerospace in 2014 and conducted numerous tests of a 5G system called SkyBender at Spaceport America in 2016. Its parent company, Alphabet, eventually grounded the drones in 2017 to focus on Loon, now an Alphabet subsidiary delivering commercial Internet service from high-altitude balloons. Facebook also wanted to test its enormous, stratospheric Aquila drones at the Spaceport but shelved its plans last year after fragile prototypes were damaged on landing.
Now AeroVironment, once again, is ready with a new project. In January 2018, Japanese technology conglomerate SoftBank and AeroVironment formed a joint venture called HAPSMobile to develop a solar-powered HALE drone for commercial operations. HAPS is an acronym standing for high altitude, pseudo-satellite.
Wahid Nawabi, CEO of AeroVironment, said, “For many years, we have fully understood the incredible value HALE unmanned aircraft platforms could deliver to countless organizations and millions of people around the world through remote sensing and last-mile, next-generation IoT connectivity.”
Of course, the aircraft is only one component of any future stratospheric Internet system. Google and Facebook have experimented with millimeter-wave and laser connectivity for their drones. AeroVironment has made several experimental filings for tests in millimeter-wave and other radio bands with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in connection with the Hawk 30.
According to IEEE Spectrum, AeroVironment is paying NASA nearly $800,000 to supervise and provide ground support for the upcoming low-altitude tests scheduled to continue until the end of June. The company will go higher in its next round if those are successful.
The company noted, “The project envisions testing in varied environments, including significantly higher altitudes. AeroVironment will return to the Commission to seek the necessary authorizations relating to higher altitudes.”