A Thales Alenia Space-led team is planning to carry out the first test flight of a scaled down demonstrator version of its STRATOBUS stratospheric airship in 2018, which it is preparing to start building at the end of the year.
The team is planning to carry out the testing at Istres air base in France, during which a 34x10m version of the lighter-than-air (LTA) craft will fly a number of missions.
The ultimate STRATOBUS will be 115x44m, and will fly at altitudes of some 65,000ft for periods of up to a year powered by solar energy. However, the demonstrator will not reach this altitude during its initial testing. A first flight of the full-scale STRATOBUS is then expected in 2020, Yannick Combet, Stratobus project manager, told media at Thales' Innovation Days exhibition on 1 March.
While the system can be applied to commercial applications as well, a military customer is expected to be the first for the aircraft, largely due to its tendency to adopt technology that involves risk first.
Thales and the team is talking to 20 customers in 20 countries, Combet said, two thirds of which want to use it for military applications.
“The feedback we have from the customer is that as soon as it is ready, they will buy it,” he added, noting that production rates will begin at two per year, escalating to 15 per year at its peak.
Military customers will want to operate the aircraft for long endurance observation, he says, which will include the use of optical sensors and radar, as well as the option to carry out communications relay.
The full scale STRATOBUS will carry a 250kg payload, will be able to carry out surveillance out to 200km at full altitude. “At this altitude it’s a good balance between wind and pressure,” Combet added.
None of these prospective buyers are on order for the system yet, but the first contract is expected to be signed at the end of the year. Development of STRATOBUS has been ongoing for a number of years, but a drive in development came in April 2016.
“This used to be a dream and now it is a product,” Combet noted. “The programme is on track, and the schedule is quite aggressive... we have a concept that works.”
Six partners are involved in the development in addition to Thales, one of which is Norwegian and the rest French, with the French government is funding the development. One of the partners is Airstar Aerospace, which is making the envelope of the aircraft, based on its experience in developing stratospheric balloons.
The air vehicle will comprise two envelopes, which will allow for control of the 5,000 cubic pounds of gas that will provide the LTA lift. For the purposes of the STRATOBUS, special coatings are being applied to the material used to allow it to operate for long durations at these altitudes. The ground control station can be fixed or mobile infrastructure, and Combet said that it will take less than ten people to deploy the system.