Helios, the world’s first unmanned plane intended as a telecom tower in the sky, is attracting interest as a new way to get broadband Internet connections to businesses. And it has a Mac for its “brain.”
Helios, an aircraft resembling a giant wing, was built with funding and research help from NASA, and has flown successfully, according to a ZDNet article. Backers claim its transmission services will be far cheaper than satellites and more efficient than wireless towers, the article said.
On August 13, the Helios prototype took off from Pacific Missile Range Facility (PMRF) at Barking Sands, Kauai, Hawaii, and flew to a peak altitude of greater than 96,500 feet. This flight accomplishes a major milestone for the NASA ERAST Program.
“We have very poor broadband last-mile coverage in the world, and we are looking to provide a wireless link to do it,” Earl Cox, director of communications for SkyTower Telecommunications, told ZDNet. SkyTower is a subsidiary of solar-powered vehicles pioneer AeroVironment, which built and designed Helios.
Helios is unique in its design and in plans for its use. With a wingspan of 247 feet, it’s six feet high and weighs 1,850 pounds, which allows it to take off at just 30 mph. It flies on the edge of Earth’s atmosphere, 100,000 feet high. Helios’ 14 electric motors run on solar power generated by 65,000 solar cells by day, and on fuel cells energized by solar power by night. And Helios’ “brain” is a Mac that would guide it back to Earth after its trip aloft, which will last six months or longer (because of its fuel cells and a limited number of moving parts), ZDNet reports. At an anticipated cost of US$10 million each, it will be far cheaper than conventional communications satellites, which cost about $200 million each, according to the article.
That’s why Helios will soon develop into a platform of choice for fixed broadband, next-generation wireless, narrowband and direct broadcast applications, Cox told ZDNet. He said Helios could supply data rates of 1.5 megabits per second to 125Mbps for a single user. The 30-millisecond latency of Helios-centered communications is comparable to that of fiber optics.
Helios-powered broadband service would require customers to buy or lease a satellite dish and a router hub.
In an article entitled “Ethernet at 60,000 feet”, the June issue of Wired magazine hailed Helios as the most radical of a new generation of NEO (near earth orbit) airplanes that can be used as aerial telecommunications platforms as an alternative or complement to satellites. The article notes AeroVironment’s long track record in developing revolutionary planes, and the development of the solar air platform with NASA funding. NASA solar plane program manager John Del Frate predicts the use of aircraft for telecommunications in less than 5 years.