back to article Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's a flying solar panel: BAE Systems' satellite alternative makes maiden flight in Oz

A BAE Systems pseudo-satellite drone has made its maiden flight in Australia, just under two years after being announced as a marketing concept. The Phasa-35, a 35m wingspan "solar-electric aircraft", as BAE calls it, took to the skies over Woomera Test Range in southern Australia. Most eye-catching about the craft, other than …

  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Do the words "sitting duck" mean anything ?

    1. Matthew Smith

      70,000 ft is seriously high. Commercial traffic normally flies at around 40,000 ft. The Russian BUK, like the one used in Ukraine to shoot down the Malaysia Airlines jet, can just reach 80,000 ft.

      And if you're fighting another army of shepherds/cavemen, then an AK-47 bullet is doing well to reach 400 ft. So yeah, its safe.

      1. jmch Silver badge

        I think weather would be much more concerning. I'm sure it's fairly robust, but from the photo it looks like a strong gust of wind would snap it like a twig. And while 'normal' winds at 70k feet, above the tropopause, are less of a concern, around the equator storms may reach up to 70,000 ft and the vertical updrafts may be at more than 100kts vertical speed.

        And is it that much cheaper? Google tells me the cost of a sat in LEO is $5k per kg, so a 15kg microsat would cost $75k. Surely this plane costs LOTS more than that, even accounting for the satellite needing to weigh more for shielding etc

        1. batfink Silver badge

          I dunno. There doesn't seem to be a lot to it. Probably carbon-fibre at a guess (and not a lot of it), plus solar panels, batteries and some lightweight engines, plus some guidance mechanism. Once a proper production line starts up this should be doable for > $75k.

          Plus the cost of the production line setup of course, but we're not counting the setup costs of building satellite launch vehicles in this comparison either.

          Also reusable (well, if you're careful), which is something you don't often get with satellites.

          1. TechnicalBen Silver badge

            Satellite repair and refurbishment solutions are just in the works. Though so far the "get a second engine and hug the existing satellite" option is the only current use solution, as the shuttle is out of use.

            But these aircraft seem much more manageable than satellites for small scale stuff.

          2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

            "but we're not counting the setup costs of building satellite launch vehicles in this comparison either."

            I think that's less of an issue now. You can shop around for an "off the peg" deal launching pretty much when you want, even at fairly short notice.

            1. TechnicalBen Silver badge

              Multibussing. :)

        2. Vulch

          You'll be needing more mass in orbit to give the equivalent performance for things like photo reconnaisance, much further away means bigger and heavier optics. A satellite in LEO can't loiter over the area of interest either so you'll need more satellites for equivalent coverage.

        3. steelpillow Silver badge
          Holmes

          That £5k/kg cost of a sat in LEO is the cost of the rocket launch. The cost of making the sat has to be added to that.

        4. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          15kg is the payload. Not the control systems, backhaul, power generation, attitude adjustment, gyros etc. So you're going to need to double, probably triple the weight.

          But even if you've done all of that...

          -Now try and get that micro-satellite to stay over one location in low earth orbit....as it goes past at 20,000mph...

          -Now try and get NIIRS 8 level imagery out of an LEO satellite, you'll find you need a full sized imagery satellite to do so.

          -Now try and get your payload back for maintenance or replacement.

          - Now try and move your system to another location...changing orbits costs fuel and you don't really do it with micro-satellites.

          - Now try and get a launch slot at short notice to cover a specific region

        5. rcxb Silver badge

          Lightning is more likely to be of serious concern:

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Upper-atmospheric_lightning

          1. Joe Harrison

            Lightning is more likely to be of serious concern

            Not at all - KAZZAPP! instant battery charge?

            Mines the one draped over the Zamboni pile...

        6. Denarius Silver badge

          @jmch

          Weather in Oz. Good point. Not just tropical regions. Back around end of 1972 or 1973, a thunderstorm south of Perth Lat 36S something, was returning radar echoes above 70,000 feet. Rare, but given the persistent east coast trough lines that hang around for months over the last few years, I suspect anything hanging around the Oz SE corner may find the skies unfriendly. Being a drone it can be controlled to stay away from big forming storms so not a showstopper. Given the current source of detailed bushfire activity involves Lear jets carrying fire oriented sensors and satellites, the possibility of cost reduction is possible if one trusts BAE. However, launching a drone in fire weather would be an exercise in butt clenching.

          1. adam 40 Bronze badge

            Re: @jmch

            You can fly around it. Job done.

        7. Persona Silver badge

          A 15kg microsat can't change course or loiter around a specific target area. It's also a lot closer so you don't need quite so fantastic optics to get high resolution ground images.

        8. John Sager

          Sats orbit. They don't loiter over one spot. So you need many to give continuous cover in LEO, or a much more expensive one (both sat & launch cost) in geostationary.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Anything that can reach up that high (fighter aircraft can't) tends to cost more than the HAPS itself. With the added benefit of the enemy giving their position away.

        1. Red Ted
          Go

          Going that high

          The U2 aircraft flew that high (nearer 80,000ft in fact) and an English Electric Lightening managed to intercept one during a NATO exercise in the mid 80’s. The lightening then turned over at about 90,000ft and passed it again on the way down.

          So I rather suspect that there are a number of offensive aircraft that could intercept it.

          1. werdsmith Silver badge

            Re: Going that high

            A ballistic climb, the Lightning would have to accelerate to full speed then point itself up, the pilot would be aiming the whole plane like a missile to intercept. Then the fuel load would be spent and the rest of the flight would be about finding somewhere to land quickly.

      3. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        >70,000 ft is seriously high. Commercial traffic normally flies at around 40,000 ft. The Russian BUK, like the one used in Ukraine to shoot down the Malaysia Airlines jet, can just reach 80,000 ft.

        That's what the US thought too until 1960 when Gary Powers was shot down in his U2 spy plane at 70,000 ft, missile technology has improved since 1960.

    2. Pen-y-gors Silver badge

      Sitting duck as in "H.M.S. Queen Elizabeth" and "H.M.S. Prince of Wales"?

      And a thought. After Wales becomes independent do we get to keep "H.M.S. Prince of Wales"? I suspect it could fetch quite a few quid on e-bay.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        >And a thought. After Wales becomes independent do we get to keep "H.M.S. Prince of Wales"? I suspect it could fetch quite a few quid on e-bay.

        Given the recent downpours in Wales perhaps you'd be better off with HMS Astute.

    3. thames

      In military terms it's far less of a sitting duck than a satellite. In a war with an advanced opponent your satellite communications network will be gone within days or even hours of the start of the war, while a HALE like this can be kept well back from the front lines while still acting as a communications relay and so be difficult to see or hit. This is why there is so much military interest in these. The UK are the leaders in this field.

      1. Roland6 Silver badge

        >The UK are the leaders in this field.

        Can't have that, doesn't fit with the "jolly good sport" image, better sell it of quick to some foreign (american or chinese) outfit...

      2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        "kept well back from the front lines"

        If you are fighting an enemy capable of knocking out your sat-comms, there is no front line. They can reach anywhere in the world.

        1. TechnicalBen Silver badge

          Or if it's a spy sat...

          Just wait till after if flies past. ;)

  2. et tu, brute?
    Unhappy

    Why, oh why...

    ...can't we for once develop something cool like this without a military application?

    1. Phil O'Sophical Silver badge

      Re: Why, oh why...

      Who would pay?

      1. Muscleguy Silver badge

        Re: Why, oh why...

        Elon Musk? Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson?

      2. et tu, brute?
        Coat

        Re: Why, oh why...

        That's my point: why are we, glorified monkeys, so backward that all we can think of (and provide money for) is ways to kill other glorified monkeys?

        When are we going to be advanced enough to do science and scientific applications just for the benefit of humanity (and other species), rather than for advantages in killing others?

        If I could, I would leave, so mine's the one with a Hitchhiker's Guide in the pocket...

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Why, oh why...

          Because those other glorified monkeys annoy us.

          1. steelpillow Silver badge

            Re: Why, oh why...

            "Elon Musk? Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson?"

            Bezos did have a crack, it was developed by UK company Ascenta and called Aquila. Amazon bought Ascenta then later closed the project down as "impossible". https://techcrunch.com/2018/06/26/facebook-permanently-grounds-its-aquila-solar-powered-internet-plane/

            1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

              Re: Why, oh why...

              That link says Facebook, not Amazon. In fact, it's right in the URL.

        2. lglethal Silver badge

          Re: Why, oh why...

          to quote/paraphrase Aristotle "How ironic it is, that the greatest forge of civilisation is war..."

          So this is not a new thought...

        3. veti Silver badge

          Re: Why, oh why...

          If you do something "for the benefit of humanity", the mathematical result of that is "more humans".

          Where, specifically, are those "more humans" going to live?

          Answering that question is at the root of every single war ever fought. Yes, every one.

          1. Denarius Silver badge

            Re: Why, oh why...

            @veti Really ? What about civil wars ? WW1 clash of empire, collapsing empire and wannbe empires which was a continuation of the Franco-Prussian War which may have had echos in idiots wanting to do a Charlemagne rather than a fight over resources. In tribal societies it was more about gaining kudos rather than land. eg New Guinea. In Torres Straits the inter island warfare was about obtaining heads as trading units in exchange for canoes from big trees. Land was not considered. And as for why much of the middle east became a desert, Timur the lame killed 90% of the farmers who maiontained the irrigation canals. Why ? Not for gain. Some of the intrusions into India werre the same. Mass murder and looting then abandonment of the "conquered" land. Perhaps some humans just enjoy destruction.

            1. veti Silver badge

              Re: Why, oh why...

              Civil wars are about who gets to govern the land. Which, ultimately, boils down to who gets to work it and who gets to live in the big houses. The imperial projects that led to World Wars 1 and 2 were about finding places for the restless young people of Europe to move to. In the 19th century Britain and France had exported their restless youth to (mostly) Africa, and Germans and Italians wanted the same options.

              Even smaller wars that are ostensibly about "status" of one warlord versus another - ultimately, the question is "who's more important here, who's in charge?" And the reason why anyone cares about that - the reason why people align themselves to one side or another - is that the person in charge ultimately gets to say who's a part of "their" community, and who isn't. Life can be made very difficult for outsiders (read: those who failed to support the warlord in their effort).

              Killing farmers and other ways of razing land (like Rome did to Carthage, or the Greeks to Troy) is a way of ensuring that it will be a long time before any challenge to you and your people arises from this area again. If you don't think you can exploit the land, the next best thing is to make sure nobody else can either. That means fewer rivals (who might, one day, grow to challenge you for dominance over your land).

              It's always about land.

          2. Pen-y-gors Silver badge

            Re: Why, oh why...

            "If you do something "for the benefit of humanity", the mathematical result of that is "more humans"."

            Some would argue that the development of safe, reliable birth control was done for the benefit of humanity.

            1. veti Silver badge

              Re: Why, oh why...

              Right. And in the countries where safe, reliable birth control is a thing - since it was introduced, has the population gone up or down?

              I'll get you started: here.

              1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

                Re: Why, oh why...

                You cite that correlation, but claim (earlier) that it is causation ("the result").

    2. Julz Silver badge

      Re: Why, oh why...

      Everything has a military application. The trick is to take for instance, A WWI bomber and turn it into a passenger plane. Or perhaps a resilient military communications infrastructure and turn it into a way of instantly sharing images of cute cats.

      1. batfink Silver badge

        Re: Why, oh why...

        Roads have a military application. How far down the technology tree would you like to go?

        1. TimMaher Bronze badge
          Trollface

          Re: Why, oh why...

          Oh go on then; I’ll bite.

          “What have the Romans ever done for us?”

        2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          Re: Why, oh why...

          "Roads have a military application. How far down the technology tree would you like to go?"

          The lever was probably a repurposed spear :-)

    3. The Basis of everything is...

      Re: Why, oh why...

      Which has more chance of success:

      Dear Shareholders. We're going spend 10's of millions developing something cool and then try to sell it to a few people who might want to email cat pictures across the outback

      Dear Shareholders. We're going to spend 10's of millions developing something cool and sell it to countries x,y and z who want to see what their neighbours are up to and will pay enough to cover the development costs and 15 years of spares. Plus we can also sell it to anyone else who wants to email cat pictures across the outback.

      Also military development is not state aid. Says Airbus, Boeing, you get the idea...

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Why, oh why...

        > and sell it to countries x,y and z who want to see what their neighbours are up to and will pay

        Not just countries

        The neighbours were having some work done last year and the Mrs was like "if we had a drone I could see..."

    4. Roland6 Silver badge

      Re: Why, oh why...

      Funding.

      A friend's business was very much about civilian application of drone tech. however, they found that the MoD were much more forth coming with the necessary seed funding for research style product development (ie. our work might not result in a working product) than the commercial sector. Having adjusted their orientation, they now have a much more secure funding stream.

      It's one of the daft things about HS2, I'm sure if the government set up a sovereign fund to spend/invest £106Bn on technology innovation over the next 20 years, they would generate a substantially larger economic impact...

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Why, oh why...

        > I'm sure if the government set up a sovereign fund to spend/invest £106Bn on technology innovation over the next 20 years, they would generate a substantially larger economic impact...

        Or even spent a fraction of that on laying a decent set of fibre to premises.

  3. Ken 16 Silver badge
    Trollface

    we can rise to the challenge the UK government has set industry

    to seriously piss off the French by claiming to build a rival "optionally manned" fighter and so defer customers from making a decision by at least 5 years

    1. Strahd Ivarius Bronze badge
      Devil

      Re: we can rise to the challenge the UK government has set industry

      Knowing BAE, the "optionnaly manned" aircraft is not able to take off without the "optional" pilot on board...

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: we can rise to the challenge the UK government has set industry

        Well, to be fair, takeoff could be an "optional" part of the flight regime... All depends on who wrote the specifications.

      2. macjules Silver badge

        Re: we can rise to the challenge the UK government has set industry

        No, that's the Transport for London variant. It demands a pilot and then asks for a pay rise or else it will go on strike.

    2. Pete4000uk

      Re: we can rise to the challenge the UK government has set industry

      If it pisses off the French it's worth it in my opinion!

  4. Miss Lincolnshire

    Not news

    Colonel White was controlling the battle against the Mysterons from one of these 50 years ago,

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: Not news

      Yep, the Brits were in the forefront, as usual. S.H.I.E.L.Ds flying skybase was just a cheap knock-off!

    2. WolfFan Silver badge

      Re: Not news

      He had Angels to help him keep the thing aloft.

  5. Pen-y-gors Silver badge

    Up to 1 year?

    Even allowing for the usual "Up to " meaning "far less than" as in "up to" 100Mbps, what causes the 1 year limitation? Dead batteries?

    And presumably launching could be a bit of a fingers crossed moment. They fly above the jet stream but they have to get through it to reach cruising height.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Up to 1 year?

      Typically, these systems run on battery power overnight, and recharge during the day, with the life-limiting factor being the number of charge-discharge cycles the batteries can endure while still being able to maintain a nominal level.

      A comparable project of which I was aware required their batteries to still be able to charge to 90% of their initial maximum to be declared mission-capable. As well as time, this was dependent on a number of meteorological factors (principally wind encountered, but also temperature, moisture and/or salt accretion, etc), but in the majority of cases the batteries were reliable for approx 3 months. For management level briefings this was given as 90-90-90, i.e. 90% of batteries could meet the target of holding 90% charge after a period of 90 days.

      1. Ribfeast

        Re: Up to 1 year?

        Surely battery temperature would be an issue at 70,000ft as well (why are we using feet btw!)

        I'd assume they are using LiPO batteries, but could be supercaps or something else.

        1. eldakka Silver badge

          Re: Up to 1 year?

          Insulation and using some of the power budget for heating can ameliorate most of that.

        2. SkippyBing Silver badge

          Re: Up to 1 year?

          'why are we using feet btw!'

          In aviation everyone* uses feet for altitude as it's a more convenient unit. E.g. 1000' is a usable distance to separate flight levels, and gives you easily remember-able numbers, e.g. FL30 is 30,000' and hard to confuse with FL31 or 29. In those countries using metric flight levels it's not only more confusing, but they don't seem to be able to agree on what heights to use if the Wikipedia article is vaguely accurate.

          *Bar China, Russia, North Korea, and a collection of the 'Stans.

          1. Andy The Hat Silver badge

            Re: Up to 1 year?

            I believe it's 70 Eiffel Towers ...

        3. Pen-y-gors Silver badge

          Re: Up to 1 year?

          (why are we using feet btw!)

          Because we're British, dammit. (Well, a lot of us)

          The foot is God's unit of length, being exactly the length of the right foot of Joseph of Arimathea and recorded on a sacred slab in a shoe-shop in Glastonbury.

    2. adam 40 Bronze badge

      Re: Up to 1 year?

      What about at higher latitudes? Presumably it would be great over the UK during the summer with 16 hours of daylight, but not great in the winter, with only 8 hours. Would the batteries last 16 hours of darkness?

  6. Spanners Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    Someone asked about vulnerability

    What is the radar return on one of these? I suspect that it is pretty low as neither balsawood or ducct tape have any at all.

    As for civilian use, how about a rival to Project Loon?

  7. Nik 2

    National Monopolies

    I suspect that BAES sees itself competing against the alternative of 'being a larg-ish part of an international consortium'

    1. SkippyBing Silver badge

      Re: National Monopolies

      BAES pretty much is an international consortium, their North American division owns all kinds of stuff that used to be 'Merican.

  8. Chris G Silver badge

    Rising to the challenge

    I think a consortium of Reg readers stand a far better chance of getting a combat ready, optionally manned aircraft into the air in two years, as opposed to BAE.

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: Rising to the challenge

      I suspect that was Lesters long term "stretch" goal, ElRegs secret plans for world domination. Why else would they have formed the SPB?

      RIP Lester.

  9. Mike Shepherd
    Meh

    "airborne for a year"

    First let me know when one has managed to stay up for a week.

  10. Sampler

    15kg payload sounds like it might work for ol' Musk's relay network without the cost (and orbital debris) of the satellites, I'm guessing there's not enough power on board these though to make that feasible..

    1. Julz Silver badge

      Apparently 1Kw which seems a lot.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Only a year aloft you say...

    Is anyone offering a 4-5 year voyage to avoid Trump 2.0?

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge
      Facepalm

      Re: Only a year aloft you say...

      Only if you are planning on cryo-freezing your head (after separating it from your body) to fit inside the payload parameters.

      (Ooooh, so many head-related icons to choose from)

  12. Kevin McMurtrie Silver badge

    Payload power

    How much power is available to the payload? I can imagine that designing your payload with its own solar panels in a way that's aerodynamically compatible would be difficult. Nuclear power would be frowned upon in applications that are likely to crash to Earth.

    All kinds of interesting things are possible if there's enough power available.

  13. werdsmith Silver badge

    I’m glad we’ve got reg readers thinking of all the drawbacks to this design, because the engineers at BAE would never have thought to consider them.

POST COMMENT House rules

Not a member of The Register? Create a new account here.

  • Enter your comment

  • Add an icon

Anonymous cowards cannot choose their icon

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2020