A joint venture between Japan’s SoftBank and unmanned aircraft systems developer AeroVironment plans to test-fly a 260-foot-long
solar-powered flying wing on Lanai that one day could be part of a network of drones loitering in the stratosphere providing 5G cellphone coverage.
State officials said they’ve been briefed by HAPSMobile Inc. on the future potential for several thousand of the drones operating from a number of locations with the aircraft staying aloft for months at a time and providing global cell connectivity. HAPS stands for high-altitude platform station.
Chung Chang, coordinator of the Hawaii Office of Aerospace Development, said a team of about 40 to 45 engineers, pilots and ground crew is needed for just one of the new aircraft, called the HAWK30.
But if the number of drones is in the thousands, “you can just imagine the economic impact,” Chang said. “Whoever can host a high-altitude drone hub would have a pretty good economic development opportunity.”
Initially, the HAWK30 will be tested from a grassy makeshift airfield on Lanai, but the island, which has flight-testing advantages for the high-flying aircraft, could become one of an indeterminate number of hubs for the drone operations, officials said.
“They want to figure out if Hawaii would be a good location, so they are considering Hawaii — and Lanai specifically — to see if it would be a good place to operate out of,” Chang said.
A kickoff for the Hawaii testing is planned toward the end of the summer, possibly in September, he said.
Ted Ralston, director of unmanned aerial systems at the University of Hawaii Applied Research Laboratory and on loan to the Hawaii Space Flight Lab, said participating groups are “moving down parallel paths to be ready for flight operations by the end of September.”
Steve Gitlin, a spokesman with AeroVironment, headquartered in Simi Valley,
Calif., only would say that “HAPSMobile is working toward a test program using HAWK30 at Lanai. The timing of the test program has not been decided yet.”
AeroVironment and Hawaii already have a history of flying wing drones with the Pathfinder and Pathfinder Plus flights out of the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai in the 1990s and later, and with the Helios Prototype, which had a wingspan of 247 feet.
In 2001 Helios attained a world-record altitude of 96,863 feet for sustained horizontal flight by a winged aircraft during a test flight in Hawaii.
During a flight from the Pacific Missile Range on June 26, 2003, and while operating at about 3,000 feet, the propeller-driven aircraft experienced turbulence and enough upward wing bowing to cause failure, according to NASA. The drone crashed into the sea within the the test range.
In April, AeroVironment announced the assembly of the first HAWK30. The aircraft’s wingspan is just shy of that of an Airbus A380 double-decker jetliner. Power comes from 10 electric motors powered by solar panels.
“Flying at an altitude of approximately 65,000 feet above sea level and above the clouds, the HAWK30 is designed for continuous, extended missions of up to months without landing,” the company said.
Acting as a cellphone tower in the sky, each aircraft would provide communications coverage over an area 124 miles in diameter. Approximately 40 of the high-altitude platforms would cover the Japanese archipelago.
The aircraft, flying in
figure-eight patterns, could provide cell coverage in mountainous, remote and disaster-affected regions, and can be outfitted for surveillance.
“We always believed in our ability to one day bring this capability and this technology and innovation to connect billions of people around the world,” Wahid Nawabi, AeroVironment president and CEO, said at an April news conference in Japan.
UH has a support agreement with HAPSMobile to perform certain tasks associated with Federal Aviation Administration authorization, including land access.
The university is a partner with several other states in the Pan Pacific Unmanned Aerial System Test Range Complex to facilitate drone integration into the national airspace.
Testing unmanned aircraft systems in the stratosphere as envisioned by HAPSMobile has never been done before, Ralston said. “We are feeling our way forward as there is no cookbook to follow,” he said.
What’s expected visually on Lanai is a temporary field tent and several support office trailers and adjacent flight surface of a circular grass field mowed out of former pineapple land, according to Ralston.
Only one flight is anticipated, as stratospheric aircraft are designed for months-long flights, he said. Arrangements will be made for public viewing.
Lanai’s flat central plain is perfect for takeoffs and landings, and from the site, a turn to the southwest takes the aircraft out to the ocean in five minutes, with no populated areas below, Ralston said.
He sees no reason why Lanai could not become an aeronautics stratospheric hub. The aircraft would spend most of the time at high altitude, requiring periodic landing for upgrade or refurbishment.
“The beauty of these stratospheric aircraft … is they make no noise, burn no fuel, do not disrupt the environment, but provide superb service to mankind though 5G revolution,” Ralston said.