New type of drones can cruise the stratosphere

Published 8:11 am Sunday, September 1, 2019

A new type of drone has been revealed. These drones are designed to fly high into the stratosphere.

How high is that? I learned that it depends on where you are on earth. At the equator, it starts at 65,000 feet, but at the poles, it can be as low as 23,000 feet.

These drones are expected to provide a few billion dollars of revenue for the owners. There was an article in the Wall Street Journal  on Aug. 27, 2019 that listed those companies proposing to fly these drones.

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Why are the companies interested in them? They are equipped with solar cells which means they, use no fuel, except that from the sun and can stay up for months on end. They can cover a wide area to provide cell phone and data transmission missions. This would eliminate many towers, which are subject to weather problems and vandalism.

These drones fly at 60,000 to 70,000 feet altitude, which is above weather and strong winds. Airbus is sponsoring one that I have seen flying via the internet. They have just been test flights. There is testing going on in the wilds of Australia where they don’t have to contend with Federal Aviation Agency rules, since it is very isolated.

The Airbus drone is named Zephyr and has a wingspan of 82 feet. It is very light and these first few flights have been hand launched with two or three people helping. It is powered by six electric motors.

The solar cells charge batteries, which can keep the drone aloft at night. It takes about eight hours for it to climb to the stratosphere, which is the most hazardous time for them.

They are very fragile and subject to break apart in high winds at the lower altitudes.

One of the other companies working on launching their own stratospheric drones is Aurora Flight Sciences, which is owned by Boeing.

They had expected to fly it, the Odysseus, last spring. They have not announced that it flew, but the Internet shows a picture of one flying.

A company named HAPSMobile, owned by Softbank, also has one. Their drone is named HAWK 30 and has a wingspan of 250 feet and is powered by 10 electric motors. It is expected to fly by next spring over the Hawaiian island of Lanai.

All these are environmentally friendly since they emit no toxic gases or carbon dioxide like the launching of satellites by rocket.

They are pretty well self-launched and require less complex communication networks of people and equipment. The drones are closer to the earth surface and can provide sharper images than a satellite.

The plan is to have spares ready to launch in the event of a communication or flight failure. Since they are so light, they are not dangerous to buildings or people as they fall about like a feather and require about 90 minutes to fall from the stratosphere.

Remember you heard about this novel drone concept first in The Ironton Tribune.

Don Lee, a pilot flying out of Lawrence County Airport since 1970, has been in charge of equipment and grounds maintenance for the last several years. He can be reached at