Development has started on a solar-powered, unmanned aircraft that can fly in the stratosphere continuously for months
at a time. The zero-emission aircraft will carry a suite of imagery equipment that will be game-changing for many
industries, vastly improving intelligence for applications such as precision agriculture, disaster management and
Christchurch-based company, Kea Aerospace, is building the largest unmanned aircraft ever built in the Southern
Hemisphere, with a wingspan of 32-metres. The three electric motors will be powered by hundreds of solar cells to
collect enough energy from the sun each day to enable it to fly continuously for months. It will fly at 65,000 ft (20
kilometres) in the stratosphere, an altitude twice as high as commercial passenger jets, where there is a relatively
calm sweet spot above the jet streams and turbulent weather to enable smooth, sustained flight.
It is currently prohibitively expensive to get regularly updated, high-resolution data that covers large areas. The “Kea
Atmos” will fly 20x closer to the Earth than satellites and enables the camera payload to acquire a much higher image
quality, without the expense of operating in space.
Kea Aerospace’s CEO, Mark Rocket says, “Our solar-powered, zero-emission fleet of aircraft will be the perfect solution
for smarter decision-making for businesses and organisations around the planet. We will acquire and analyse high quality
aerial imagery data, to provide business intelligence direct to customers.”
Current space-based and airborne earth observation solutions have acute limitations. There is a large data intelligence
gap that can’t be met by satellites, manned aircraft or drones. Only a small percentage of New Zealand’s land and
waterways are aerially surveyed each year.
Kea Aerospace has been accepted into the New Zealand Airspace Integration Trials, a programme to establish New Zealand
as location of choice for the safe development, testing and market validation of advanced unmanned aircraft. Dr Peter
Crabtree, General Manager of Science, Innovation and International at the Ministry of Business, Innovation and
Employment, says: “The launch of the Kea Atmos is exciting for Kea Aerospace and for New Zealand. This project has the
potential to revolutionise Earth imagery, providing access to higher quality data at a more affordable price point. We
are pleased to have companies like Kea Aerospace join the Airspace Integration Trials Programme as we work towards our
goal of realising the full potential for innovation within New Zealand’s regulatory regimes.”