The National Aerospace Laboratories in Bengaluru has successfully completed their first test of a solar powered pseudo-satellite, a new age unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that can significantly increase the surveillance and monitoring capabilities for India especially at the border areas.
The High-Altitude Pseudo Satellite Vehicles or HAPS can fly at an altitude of 18-20km above ground almost double the heights attained by commercial airplanes and thanks to its ability to generate solar power, can stay or remain in air for months, even years offering it advantages of a satellite. But because it does not require rocket to get in to space, the cost of operating the HAPS is several times lower than that of a satellite which is placed at least 200km from earth.
HAPS is still developing technology, and the successful test flight last week places India among a small group of nations currently experiencing this type of technology. The test flight, carried out in the Challekere testing range in the Chitradurga district in Karnataka saw the 23kg prototype with a swing span of about 12 meters remain in air for about eight to nine hours.
“This is a very important milestone in the development of HAPS. But there are few more milestones to be attained before it becomes operational and industrial production. The next step and we hope to do it in the next month itself is to make this vehicle fly for at least 24hrs, during which the entire sequence of power generation involving the solar cells and batteries that would be charged during the day and consumed during the night can be tested.
We are working towards a deployment target by 2027, said Abhay Anant Pashilkar, the director of the NAL, one of the laboratories under the Council of Scientific Industrial Research (CSIR)” said.
The need for development of high endurance, high altitude flying instruments arose from the desire to have continuous surveillance of border areas to detect changes and movements, particularly the Doklam Standoff in 2017. Battery powered UAV can remain in the air for a limited period of time and can scan relatively small areas. Satellites placed in the Lower Earth Orbits (LEO) and meant to observe the earth and usually move in their orbits and are not watching constantly.
Solar powered UAV are considered as a much better solution. Although NASA has been using solar powered engines for its Pathfinder series of aircrafts for a long time, it is now only that other countries have got into developing more sturdy and nimble versions of solar aircraft for various purposes. China, South Korea, UK are examples of countries where this development is taking place. Some private companies’ area also developing HAPS in India.
In December 2023, the Bengaluru based New Space Research and Technologies, and deep tech start-up flew a similar solar powered UAV having developed the technology through the Innovation of Defence Excellence (iDEX) of the Ministry of Defence (MoD). The test flight by the NAL was the result of the separate initiative of Research and Development (R&D) started by CSIR.
“HAPS can be very useful in disaster situations as well. It can even be used to provide mobile communications networks in remote areas, if the normal networks get damaged due to any calamity. A lot of other things that satellites can do will be achieved through this,” Pashilkar said.
The NAL will build only the prototype. The manufacturing of the actual UAV will happen with industry linkages. The aircraft that was successfully tested was a scaled down version on third in size to the eventual aircraft.