Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's a flying solar panel: BAE Systems' satellite alternative makes maiden flight in Oz

Spindly thing claimed to stay airborne for a year with 15kg payload

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A BAE Systems pseudo-satellite drone has made its maiden flight in Australia, just under two years after being announced as a marketing concept.

The Phasa-35, a 35m wingspan "solar-electric aircraft", as BAE calls it, took to the skies over Woomera Test Range in southern Australia. Most eye-catching about the craft, other than its thin, frail wings, is the designers' claim that it can lift 15kg into the sky for up to a year without needing to land.

In a statement boasting of its achievements, BAE said: "As a High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) vehicle, Phasa-35 is powered by the Sun during the day and by batteries overnight. The long-life battery and highly efficient solar technology could allow the aircraft to maintain flight for up to a year operating in the stratosphere, the upper regions of the Earth's atmosphere."

Phasa-35's market niche is as a cheap alternative to orbital satellites. Instead of shouldering the heart-stoppingly high cost of launching and maintaining a satellite in space, the Phasa-35 will loiter somewhere between 55,000ft and 70,000ft, as The Register detailed two years ago.

Originally designed by Hampshire-based Prismatic Ltd, the Phasa-35 is now a BAE Systems product after the former company was bought out by the global British defence contractor.

Although its obvious application is for military surveillance in good weather, BAE also suggested it could be put to use monitoring forest fires – very topical in Australia – or for peaceful maritime surveillance.

The craft's immediate rival is Airbus's Zephyr-S drone, also designed and made in Britain. Zephyr has the advantage of already being in service, though that hasn't prevented two of the three test craft from crashing during trials in Australia.

Ian Muldowney, BAE's engineering director, beamed in a canned statement: "This is an outstanding early result that demonstrates the pace that can be achieved when we bring the best of British capability together. To go from design to flight in less than two years shows that we can rise to the challenge the UK government has set industry to deliver a Future Combat Air System within the next decade."

The latter sentence refers to BAE's Tempest drawing-board concept for an "optionally manned" fighter jet. Given that BAE is the very last company in the UK capable of designing, building and testing a complete fighter jet, the pretence that the government has challenged "industry" to come up with this as opposed to asking its bilateral monopoly to make a new product is rather cute. ®

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