A business venture aiming to launch a fleet of solar-
powered flying wings into the stratosphere to one day deliver 5G cell connectivity has received permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to conduct a test flight from Lanai, possibly as early as November, officials said.
The first 260-foot, unmanned HAPSMobile HAWK30 is expected to be flown this month and in September at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research
Center in California, said Ted Ralston, director of unmanned aerial systems at the University of Hawaii Applied Research
“In taking up this major challenge to provide telecommunications connectivity from the stratosphere, this (FAA) approval represents a major step forward,” Junichi Miyakawa, president and CEO of HAPS
Mobile Inc., said in a news release.
Wireless provider Sprint, meanwhile, filed a request with the Federal Communications Commission to test the capability of transmitting 4G LTE signals from ground equipment to the HAWK30 high above Lanai and surrounding areas.
A late September timeframe for a possible Lanai test flight was previously given, but that has slipped a bit as the project moves forward.
HAPSMobile is a joint venture between California-based AeroVironment and Japan’s SoftBank Corp. HAPS stands for high-
altitude platform station.
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.
UH has a support agreement with HAPSMobile to perform certain tasks associated with FAA authorization, including land access.
Ralston said it may be the first-ever FAA approval to use national airspace — outside of restricted air — to get to the stratosphere. The HAWK30 is expected to fly at an altitude of between 65,000 and 80,000 feet.
The altitude over NASA’s Armstrong center is restricted because there’s so much commercial traffic. “They can’t do the stratosphere,” Ralston said.
Lanai has two tiny population clusters, little air traffic and lots of ocean surrounding it. The solar aircraft also need the intense sunshine of the tropical belt, Ralston said.
State officials said previously they had been briefed by HAPSMobile on the potential for several thousand of the drones operating from a series of hubs. Ralston said there’s a “very high probability” Lanai could be a hub for the aircraft that spend months at a time at high altitude.
“The way it works is you charge the batteries all day till about 2 or 4 in the afternoon at 80,000 feet, and then overnight when you don’t have any solar coming in, you use the batteries and do a drift-down to get to 65,000 at the end of the night,” Ralston said.
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.
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.
Chung Chang, coordinator of the Hawaii Office of Aerospace Development, said in July that a team of about 40 to 45 engineers, pilots and ground crew is needed for just one 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.
“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.
What’s expected visually on Lanai is a temporary field tent, several support office trailers and an adjacent flight surface on a 1,000-foot circular grass field mowed out of former pineapple land, Ralston said. The takeoff run is probably 300 feet at 25 mph, he said.
Only one flight is anticipated, as stratospheric aircraft are designed for months-long flights, he said. Arrangements will be made for public viewing.
Ralston said the flight also will have an educational component relating to atmospheric watershed data collected from sensors placed around the island.
“So you use the overhead position of the aircraft to pick up (radio signal) information deep in the valleys that you can’t otherwise get,” he said.