New Delhi: The successful first test flight of a solar-powered “pseudo satellite” by the National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL) in Bengaluru last week put India among a very small group of countries. This developing technology can significantly increase India’s surveillance and monitoring capabilities in the border areas.
The high-altitude pseudo satellite vehicle, or HAPS, a new age unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) can fly at altitudes of 18-20 km from the ground, almost double the heights attained by commercial airplanes. With its ability to generate solar power, HAPS can remain in air for months, even years, offering it advantages of a satellite. Moreover, it does not require a rocket to get into space, thus the cost of operating HAPS is several times lower than that of a satellite that is usually placed at least 200 km from the earth.
The test flight of HAPS – still a developing technology, was carried out in the Challakere testing range in Chitradurga district of Karnataka. The test flight saw the scaled-down 23-kg prototype with a wing-span of about 12 metres, remain in air for about eight and a half hours, achieving an altitude of about 3 km from the ground.
In a media report, the Director of NAL, Abhay Anant Pashilkar was quoted as saying, “This is a very important milestone in the development of HAPS. But there are a few more milestones to be attained before HAPS is ready for industrial production. The next step, and we hope to do it next month itself, is to make this vehicle fly for at least 24 hours, 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.”
Post Doklam standoff, the need for development of high-endurance, high-altitude flying instruments was direly felt to have continuous surveillance of border areas to detect changes or movements. Battery-powered UAVs can remain in air for a limited period of time and can scan relatively smaller areas. Similarly, satellites placed in low-earth orbits and meant to observe the Earth usually move in their orbits and are not watching constantly.
Considered a better solution, the development of solar-powered unmanned aircraft has started gaining momentum now. Focus is on developing more sturdy and nimble versions of solar aircraft for a variety of purposes. In December last year, Bengaluru-based NewSpace Research and Technologies, a deep-tech start-up, flew a similar solar-powered UAV, having developed the technology through the Innovation of Defence Excellence initiative of the Defence Ministry.
Started by CSIR, the test flight by NAL was the result of a separate initiative of R&D in this area. NAL will only develop the technology and a prototype. The manufacturing would happen with industry linkages. The aircraft that was successfully tested was a scaled-down version, one-third in size to the eventual aircraft.
According to Pashilkar, 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 are deployed to do can be done by these vehicles.