Remote control brings
satellites closer

The high-flying aircraft will be
demonstrated at Barking Sands

By B.J. Reyes
Associated Press

A remote-controlled solar-powered aircraft that can soar 12 miles over major cities aims to bring satellite technology closer to Earth.

Developers of the technology say it will provide higher bandwidth for a host of communications systems, allowing users to videoconference over Palm Pilots or download Internet files at five times the speed of cable modems or digital subscriber line connections -- all at a fraction of today's cost.

The first demonstration of the new communications system -- developed by a private U.S. company in collaboration with NASA and the Japanese Ministry of Telecommunications -- is set for Thursday, weather permitting, at the Navy's Pacific Missile Range Facility on Barking Sands on Kauai.

Barking Sands is where scientists last year set an altitude record of 96,500 feet for a non-rocket powered aircraft, flying a $15 million Helios Prototype. The Helios is being used by AeroVironment Inc. and its commercial subsidiary, SkyTower Inc., to carry the communications equipment for Thursday's demonstration.

The system creates a new, high-altitude wireless communications base between satellites thousands of miles in space and the world's highest communications towers.

"What enables us to provide such large bandwidth is we basically use the same technology that's on satellites" and bring it closer to the ground, said Matt Kobayashi, director of Asia-Pacific business development for AeroVironment.

AeroVironment and SkyTower hope to have the first planes flying over metropolitan areas on a demonstration basis within two to three years.

"We expect that within 10 years we can have thousands of airplanes in the sky over the major cities of the world," Kobayashi said, adding that "development of the plane is basically finished."

He said he could not discuss the project's costs or what it would cost to operate the planes, but added "it will be much lower than existing systems."

It is remote-controlled, made of carbon fiber, graphite epoxy, Kevlar, styrofoam and a plastic skin -- is extremely flexible, lightweight and durable.

Its 14 specially designed propellers are driven by small 2-horsepower motors powered by 65,000 solar cells covering the wing.

Its 247-foot wingspan is greater than that of a Boeing 747, yet is only 8 feet from front to back. Its cruising speed ranges from 19 to 25 mph.

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