What Are Pseudo-Satellites and What Do They Mean for Aerospace and Aviation?
- On: 12, Oct 2018
2 min read
A pseudo-satellite is a high-altitude aircraft, designed to fill in the gap between satellites and UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles). Pseudo-satellites operate in the stratosphere, where no weather occurs. Almost out of the earth’s orbit, these drones can provide wide-ranging reconnaissance options.
One example of a pseudo-satellite is the Airbus Zephyr. This solar-powered drone can operate independently for months or be taken over manually. The Airbus Zephyr offers active mapping of a wide area, and radar, to provide a complete picture of what’s happening in real time. The Zephyr Model S weighs less than 75kg. The first production examples were built at Airbus Defence and Space’s manufacturing facility in Farnborough. The Zephyr S HAPS serial assembly line in Farnborough, called the Kelleher facility, was opened in July 2018.
Primarily used for communications, High-Altitude Pseudo-Satellites (HAPS) are also being looked at for maritime monitoring and surveillance, environmental observation and military intelligence gathering and border patrol. HAPS could even be used for missile detection. They use high-definition optical and infra-red cameras to produce real-time visuals in any lighting.
HAPS have been in development for over a decade, but recent technological advancements have meant they’ve become more viable than previous iterations. Improvements to the battery life, weight and navigations systems mean the model has more long-term sustainability. The market is expected to grow by 15% in the next five years. An Airbus Zephyr unit costs around $5million. Traditional orbital satellites cost anywhere between $50million and $400million.
Pseudo-satellites are far easier to launch than traditional aircraft. Requiring no runway or airport, they can launched and piloted to wherever they’re needed. Thanks to Beyond Line of Sight (BLOS) technology, they can be controlled from anywhere in the world. Flying at around 70,000 feet in the air, the satellites bypass air traffic and navigate to any point above the earth. The British military have purchased three Airbus Zephyr units, with former UK Prime Minister David Cameron endorsing the satellites as:
'British-designed unmanned aircraft that will fly at the edge of the earth's atmosphere and allow us to monitor our adversaries for weeks on end, providing critical intelligence for our armed forces.’
This type of satellite is entirely solar powered, meaning it can operate independently for up to 25 days. Made of carbon fibre, the model is strong while remaining light enough to fly, powered by a lithium-sulphur battery. The Airbus Zephyr successfully achieved several world records, including the longest flight duration without refuelling. Future versions may even be able to stay aloft for months at a time.
HAPS can also provide wi-fi to areas within their range. The satellites can stay focused on a specific area of interest which can be hundreds of miles wide. Airborne internet connectivity is a blossoming market, with Google’s Project Loon signing a deal to bring internet-delivering balloons to Kenya.