Autonomous aircraft designed for 'ultra-endurance' flights reaches milestone

Key Points
  • An unmanned aircraft has successfully completed a trial flight in the U.K., academics said on Tuesday.
  • According to the leader of the project, the technology could revolutionize the telecoms sector.
  • The team behind the aircraft are now looking to partner with “major manufacturers” to continue its development.
The Phoenix in flight
The Centre for Process Innovation

A self-sufficient autonomous aircraft that could potentially embark on flights of an indefinite length has reached a development milestone, academics said on Tuesday.

The Phoenix, an "ultra-endurance" unmanned aircraft, uses helium to ascend into the air and then propels itself forward by "inhaling" and compressing air. Its battery is powered by solar cells, meaning there are theoretically no limits on how long it could remain air bound.

According to its developers, the Phoenix is the first ever large-scale aircraft to be powered by such technology.

Academics and industry representatives from several U.K. institutions developed the prototype vehicle, which is 15 meters long and has a 10.5-meter wingspan. Last month, scientists successfully flew the model over a 120-meter distance in an indoor trial.

The team that developed the Phoenix said it would now explore collaborations with "major manufacturers," claiming the aircraft could revolutionize the telecoms sector and create cheaper alternatives to launching satellites.

Andrew Rae, professor of engineering at the University of the Highlands and Islands, led the design of the Phoenix. He said in a press release on Tuesday that the aircraft is "completely self-sufficient."

"The energy needed to power its pumps and valves is provided by a battery which is charged by lightweight flexible solar cells on its wings and tail," he said.

"Vehicles based on this technology could be used as pseudo satellites and would provide a much cheaper option for telecommunication activities," he added. "Current equivalent airplanes are very complex and very expensive. By contrast, Phoenix is almost expendable and so provides a user with previously unavailable options."