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The PHASA-35 high-altitude, long endurance unmanned aerial vehicle (HALE UAV) could stay airborne for a whole year using nothing but solar power. The project is a collaboration between BAE Systems and Prismatic. Test flights will take place next year and finished aircraft could be shipped to customers in 2020 or 2021.

PHASA-35 will be able to carry a 15kg payload, and although it’s been widely described as a ‘spy drone’, its cargo could be anything. Martin Topping, international production developer at BAE Systems, said: “Essentially any payload that can fit within the capacity can be put inside it. That could be 5G and 6G communications, border surveillance, agriculture and forestry, famine relief – it’s infinite. The vehicle is the carrier – the transit van. Spying is quite a niche usage.”

“We want this to fly for as long as possible,” Jonathan Dixon, engineering director at Prismatic, told techradar.com. “For months, and eventually years.”

PHASA-35 isn’t the only project that could bring internet access to areas not served by existing networks. Airbus’ Zephyr is a similar product, but doesn’t carry as heavy a payload.

Airbus is building two Zephyr models for different sized payloads. The smaller, Zephyr S, is already in production, while the slightly larger Zephyr T is still in development. Zephyr S has set an endurance record of 14 days of uninterrupted flight.

Other solutions by technology giants include high-altitude helium balloons developed by Google’s parent company Alphabet, with a typical life of around 100 days. Facebook’s Aquilla solar-powered drone prototype completed a 96-minute test flight but the project was shelved in 2018.

BAE Systems and Prismatic are exploring different ways to market PHASA-35, including selling the drone itself, the drone together with a payload, or delivering it as a whole system. The drones are currently being made in UK, but customers could take manufacturing into their own countries.

The next steps for the project as a whole will be increasing the payload, and making the drone work in more locations.