A team of engineers have built a self-propelling, self-sufficient aircraft that could “revolutionise” the telecommunications industry.
The unmanned vehicle, dubbed Phoenix, uses technology currently more common in the underwater remotely operated vehicles seen in the offshore industry.
But the new uses it has been put to by Professor Andrew Rae from the University of the Highlands and his colleagues could be game-changing.
Their aircraft uses variable-buoyancy propulsion – repeatedly transitioning from being lighter-than-air to heavier-than-air – to propel itself forward.
In essence, it means the unmanned vehicle is self-sufficient and could, in theory, be operational for an unlimited period of time, never having to return to the ground.
It is the first time the technology has been harnessed for a large aircraft.
Andrew Rae, Professor of Engineering at Perth College UHI, led the design of the aeroplane over the past three years.
He said: “The Phoenix spends half its time as a heavier-than-air aeroplane, the other as a lighter-than-air balloon.
“The repeated transition between these states provides the sole source of propulsion.
“The vehicle’s fuselage contains helium to allow it to ascend and also contains an air bag which inhales and compresses air to enable the craft to descend.
“This motion propels the aeroplane forwards and is assisted by the release of the compressed air through a rear vent. This system allows the Phoenix to be completely self-sufficient.
“The energy needed to power its pumps and valves is provided by a battery which is charged by lightweight flexible solar cells on its wings and tail.
“Vehicles based on this technology could be used as pseudo-satellites and would provide a much cheaper option for telecommunication activities.
“Current equivalent aeroplanes are very complex and very expensive. By contrast, Phoenix is almost expendable and so provides a user with previously unavailable options.”
The prototype aeroplane is 15 metres long, with a wingspan of 10.5 metres, and was flown successfully and repeatedly over a distance of 120 metres during indoor trials.
The Phoenix team is now exploring collaborations with major manufacturers to take the technology to the next phase of development.
The project has been part-funded by Innovate UK, the UK’s Innovation Agency.