Though many people immediately associate unmanned drones with military use or some kind of dubious espionage activity, but they have incredible potential to be used in a wide variety of peaceful and scientific applications. In addition to delivering supplies to disaster-stricken areas, drones could be used to gather information about things like weather and wildlife.
Titan Aerospace is currently developing a drone named Solara 50 that is being hailed as an “atmospheric satellite” and has quite a lot to offer in terms of gathering scientific data. The drone will fly at an altitude of over 19,000 meters (65,000 feet) where there is little air traffic and above most weather that could impede its travels. Flying at that height will also give it unobstructed access to the sun, which will power the 3,000 solar cells that cover its 50-meter-long (164 feet) wings. The solar cells will also charge lithium ion batteries stored inside the wing so it can fly at night, which means that this drone can fly uninterrupted for up to 5 years all while producing zero emissions.
The body of the drone is durable carbon fiber, and the 5-kilowatt electric motor will allow the aircraft to cruise at about 96 km/h (60 mph). Though the aircraft itself weighs only 160 kg (350 lbs), it will be able to carry 32 kg (70 lbs) worth of payload up into the stratosphere.
Solara 50 is completely self-piloted; able to take off, cruise, and land on its own. It will function much the same way as a satellite, though it will cost much less to launch. From the air, it would be able to track developing storms, migrating wildlife, vegetation patterns, and it would also have data communications capabilities; a feature that has caught the eye of the social media giant, Facebook.
Facebook would use the drones to bring the internet to the 5 billion people around the globe who aren’t online as part of the Internet.org initiative. They are interested in acquiring Titan Aerospace for an estimated $60 million. If it goes through, Facebook will launch 11,000 units to start, which would be used to connect rural regions in Africa to the rest of the world. This is a similar—yet more sophisticated—concept as Google’s Project Loon, which had the same internet connectivity goals in mind though it utilized weather balloons instead of precision-guided drones.
If Facebook does acquire Titan Aerospace and all of its drone technology, all of the units produced will be used to further Internet.org’s goals.
Illustration credit: Titan Aerospace