UK Solar-Powered High Latitude Drone Presents New Mapping Opportunities

The Astigan high-altitude "pseudo-satellite" (HAPS) drone, built in Somerset using British Technology, and co-developed with Ordinance Survey, could succeed where other earth-mapping efforts by tech giants have failed, and provide a wealth of other opportunities.

High Altitude Hover For 90 Days, With No Re-Fuelling

The fixed-wing aircraft, which has solar panels across 38m wingspan and only weighs 149kg (328lb), can be set to hover for 90 days at a time at an altitude of 67,000ft (c. 20,420m), without re-fuelling. It is controlled from the ground and can be set to map large areas of interest or made to hover continuously over one geographical area.

Carries Cameras

The Astigan ‘drone’ has been developed to carry cameras like those on mapping aircraft, and due to its co-development with Ordnance Survey, its initial purpose is to provide high-resolution images for mapping, supported by field surveyors on the ground, and data from local authorities and the land registry.

Advantages

The advantages that this kind of drone has over existing mapping technologies such as satellites are that:

It’s much cheaper to build and operate e.g. there are no huge satellite launch costs.
It provides higher-resolution images.
It is more flexible e.g. it is easier to divert a drone than an orbiting satellite, and several drones can be deployed at a time, perhaps in the same area.
The Technology

The technology and know-how come from the 1999 ‘Solar Impulse’ project where Brian Jones, former RAF pilot and balloonist, recorded the first non-stop around the world balloon flight.

Same Factory As Facebook Drones

Just as this project appears to have succeeded where drone-development projects by tech giants have failed, it operates from the same factory that once housed Facebook's Aquila internet drone project until Facebook abandoned its drone plans.

Opportunities

As Neil Ackroyd (co-founder of Bridgwater, Somerset-based Astigan) has been quick to point out, even though the drone has many advantages over other earth-mapping methods, it has a huge number of potential other uses. For example, the drone (or fleets of drones) could be used to help with land management and urbanisation, monitoring environmental change, and even helping with environmental disasters e.g. hovering over areas where there are forest fires.

It is, of course, also possible to envisage that drones like these could have military and state surveillance uses.

Trouble Over Bridgwater - Criticism

Back in 2013, The state-owned national mapping agency Ordinance Survey was criticised by some for paying £700,000 for what was then the little-known aerospace company Astigan. OS was the subject of complaints by some competitors and suppliers of OS that it may have stifled competition, and may, in effect, have received illegal state aid.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

The ability to provide a low-cost, effective way of supplying high resolution photos and maps of the earth could feed into (and add value to the work of) many businesses and organisations around the world. The opportunities are many, and it is good news too that the technology has been developed in the UK. It has been reported that the platform will also be made available to companies who want to attach their own sensors and cameras to the drones e.g. to track climate change.

Posted by Andrew Sewell,

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