A race is on to build a fleet of solar-powered drones that beam internet down to the Earth beneath them, and the tech titans are dominating this chase—or so we thought. But now that Google and Facebook both have dashed their plans for roaming unmanned internet planes, a lesser known company is partnering with NASA to bring the project closer to reality, according to an IEEE Spectrum report.
It is the Hawk 30, a massive 10-engine drone in the vein of previous UAVs made by Airbus and the solar-powered Odysseus plane that can fly for months on end. The product of Japanese tech giant SoftBank and U.S. drone manufacturer AeroEnvironment, the Hawk could soon embark on test flights, with a launch from NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center potentially slated for this week.
The Hawk, though part of a new $65 million partnership between the two companies, is part of the same family as previous UAVs AeroEnvironment built for NASA. One of those was the Helios prototype, which crashed in 2003 during a high-altitude test. The Hawk mirrors its ill-fated predecessor in both ambition and design. In 2001, the Helios reached the highest altitude of any winged horizontal aircraft when it ascended to 93,000 feet. The milestone set a new precedent for high-altitude, solar aircraft.
Photos of the Hawk 30 are scant, but per images dug up by IEEE Spectrum, it looks like the wide-bodied cousin of the Helios.
While it may be years from commercial readiness, the Hawk 30 has big implications for the broadening of wireless connectivity in remote regions, if indeed it can succeed where others have failed: Facebook made a splashy foray into the internet-beaming drone race by announcing Aquila, a solar-powered UAV the size of a Boeing 737’s wingspan that used propellers to ply air. (The project was abandoned in 2017 after the drones were damaged in landings). Google too began vetting its sky-born internet capabilities in 2015, but later scrapped drones in favor of Project Loon, which uses high-altitude balloons to beam down internet.
The Hawk will still have to fend off competition from the likes of Airbus, but its prospects are lifted by AeroEnvironments connections with NASA. IEEE Spectrum reports the company is contracted with the space agency for three flight tests that will take the drone up to 10,000 feet, with the intention go much higher if initial tests are successful:
AeroVironment is paying NASA nearly $800,000 to supervise and provide ground support for the upcoming low altitude tests, which are scheduled to continue until the end of June. If those are successful, the company will go higher in its next round.
There’s currently no word on the Hawk’s communications payload capacity, but its creators certainly hope that it helps expand wireless internet access across the globe. First, though, it will have to make it out of testing unscathed.