The New Aircraft Revolutionizing Spying Missions

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Nowadays, most military spying is conducted by satellites in space, but there’s a surprisingly slow new kid on the block that might change the game.

Phasa-35 is a British aircraft that moves so slowly it can appear to be going backwards. It is powered by small electric engines attached to elongated wings encasing solar panels that capture power during the day and keep the engines running at night. Solar power is then stored in many packs of lithium batteries, meaning that some can fail during weeks of flight without any impact on endurance. The aircraft’s wingspan is 35 meters, it has a pencil-thin carbon fiber fuselage and weighs only 150kg.

According to BBC News, when Phasa-35 reaches its stratospheric destination at the slow speed of 88 kph, the aircraft can actually travel backwards in relation to the earth if it hits winds of higher velocity as it climbs upwards through weather systems.

This type of aircraft is regarded as a new category of unmanned aircraft- High Altitude Pseudo-Satellite (HAPS), and military minds worldwide are working on using them as satellite substitutes. One HAPS carrying a small payload of cameras or other sensors could “sit” above an area of interest for months, eavesdropping on communications or relaying information.

Another very attractive quality of the Phasa-35 and others like it is their price, since they cost a fraction of their alternative, which is launching a satellite into space.

The only problem at the moment is ensuring the aircraft can stay in the air long enough to complete its job, which is why weather forecasting on a very detailed scale plays a big part in this project. According to BBC News, the Phasa-35 trials relied on a laser sensing system that measured weather conditions and wind speeds every 152m until it reached its final altitude.

BAE Systems claims that the Phasa-35 and other pseudo-satellites can stay “fairly still” in the air, which is attractive for military clients who want to observe one spot for weeks, as well as for commercial clients who might want to put hundreds of pseudo-satellites up in formation to offer internet connections across a remote area.

Douglas Barrie, a defense and aerospace specialist at the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank in London spoke about this new aircraft as “an alternative approach to what a spy balloon gives you. A pseudo-satellite can sit over an area of interest for days and it’s covert, there’s not much radar signature. This is a technology on the cusp of having its time arrive.”