SkyTower Tests Satellite Solar-Powered Planes

July 31, 2002 by Jeff Shepard

SkyTower Inc. (Monrovia, CA), and privately held parent company AeroVironment Inc. (Monrovia, CA), announced that it has successfully tested an unmanned, solar-powered, prototype aircraft 65,000ft above the Hawaiian island of Kauai that could provide telecommunications companies with a platform for delivering a host of wireless services for the next generation of mobile devices. The system would establish a new, high-altitude, wireless communications base, providing clearer transmissions by bringing satellite technology closer to Earth, but keeping it high enough to avoid ground interference such as buildings and trees.

The tests involved beaming signals for mobile phones and hand-held devices and transmission of a high-definition television, or HDTV, signal to the prototype plane Pathfinder-Plus. The technology could be used by government agencies to monitor natural disasters like hurricanes and assist emergency services. AeroVironment and SkyTower hope to have the first planes flying over metropolitan areas on a demonstration basis within two to three years. The next step in development is testing a fuel cell that allows the solar-powered plane to stay in the air overnight. That demonstration is expected sometime next year.

"We expect that within 10 years we can have thousands of airplanes in the sky over the major cities of the world," said Matt Kobayashi, director of Asia-Pacific business development for AeroVironment. "Development of the plane is basically finished."