Solar Airplane of Aurora

Unmanned solar aircraft “Odysseus” unveiled

Jennifer Weitbrecht
1 picture
5 minutes

The American technology company Aurora Flight Sciences Corp. unveiled an innovative new development on 14 November: “Odysseus”, which according to the company’s own statement, is the world’s largest and most capable solar-powered autonomous aircraft to date.

What’s behind Aurora?

Aurora was founded in 1989 in Manassas (Virginia, USA). According to the company’s press report dated 14 November, the company “was founded by the idea that technology and innovation can provide powerful solutions to tough problems that affect all of humankind.”

The company has mainly specialised in unmanned aircraft and its long-term goal is to establish a fleet of flying taxis. The US corporation Boeing acquired the drone and robotic aircraft manufacturer in 2017. Boeing’s mission is “Connect – Protect – Explore – Inspire” and the Odysseus project combines all these aspects, according to its image video on the “Odysseus”.

The “Odysseus” solar-powered aircraft – The details

Powered only by the sun, the solar-powered aircraft was designed for ultra-long endurance missions at high altitudes. It is also capable of persistently remaining on station above selected locations, that factor alone making it a ground-breaking success.

According to a statement by Aurora, it can effectively fly indefinitely: the “Odysseus” boasts advanced solar cells on its wings and fuselage, capable of delivering 250 watts. The aircraft uses the solar cells to generate electrical energy, which operates both the drive motors and charges the batteries to enable the aircraft to remain aloft even at night.

Its wing span is 74 metres, but its payload is only 25 kilogrammes. Its astonishingly light weight is achieved through its advanced lightweight construction based on a series of carbon fibre struts covered by an ultra-lightweight UV-resistant material.

Climate and weather research to benefit

The autonomous aircraft is designed to provide many benefits for climate research in particular, and it is hoped that its use will lead to rapid progress in this field. Odysseus will provide researchers with long-term, high-resolution observation capabilities. The platform can measure vegetation, ice coverage and flow rates and even ground moisture. These are the most important measurements of all, says James G. Anderson, Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry at Harvard.

Apart from climate research, weather researchers are also hoping for great things from the aircraft. It is hoped that weather and storm monitoring will become considerably more affordable and, above all, more accurate because of its ability to track and measure the movement of severe weather events – all while powered by clean, renewable energy.

Economic benefits of the solar-powered aircraft

Odysseus is capable of persistently remaining on station, which enables internet connectivity or other forms of communication over a specific location. The solar-powered aircraft also provides visibility over a broad geographic area, allowing regions to be monitored over a long period of time.

What makes Odysseus so unique?

The solar-powered aircraft comes close to the ideal of a perpetually flying, or persistence, aircraft that causes no environmental pollution, operates fully sustainably, or at least as close as any aircraft to date, and therefore represents the perfect platform for researchers. “Odysseus will change the world” states Aurora Managing Director and CEO John Langford.

It is the following factors in particular that distinguish the opportunities offered by Odysseus from other solar-powered aircraft.

In addition to “Odysseus”, the Boeing Corporation has even more outstanding research projects in the pipeline, including the Perlan glider, which enables non-motorised flight up to the stratosphere and is also capable of delivering valuable data for climate and weather research. We have already reported in this blog post about the current status of the Perlan project.

Find out more about the “Odysseus” project and solar-powered aircraft in this video produced by Aurora.

Pictures © Aurora Flight Sciences

by Jennifer Weitbrecht

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