Airbus Wants to Replace Satellites With High-Flying Drones

Airbus Wants to Replace Satellites With High-Flying Drones
June 02 11:43 2016 Print This Article

(WIRED) – When Sputnik 1 reached low Earth orbit in 1957, it did more than kick-start America’s space program and send American schoolchildren scurrying for cover under their desks. It launched the satellite age. The orbiting platforms, which now number in the thousands, revolutionized communication, navigation, and watching football.

Satellites, though, are expensive to build, expensive to launch, and difficult to update once in orbit. Drones are another story. They’re relatively cheap, easily launched, and readily updated. Of course, they can’t stay aloft very long.

Or can they?

Airbus recently announced the successful maiden flight of its Zephyr T aircraft, a drone powered only by sunshine. Six decades after Sputnik launched the space race, the European firm joins the likes of NASA and Facebook in a race to build high-altitude drones that combine the advantages of a satellite and the flexibility of a plane. “You don’t have to go through the rigor that current space-based satellite systems use,” says John Del Frate, an aerospace engineer at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center.

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