The craft was designed to address a challenge posed by the U.S. Air Force. The teams were asked to develop a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) powered by solar energy that was able to stay in the air for long periods. The idea was to design a vehicle that could help deliver communications to areas impacted by natural disasters or other emergencies. Weather balloons have traditionally been the choice, but they drift with the wind and often don’t stay in the air long enough to be effective.
Not long after they began to work on the problem, the team abandoned the solar option. According to team co-lead, Professor Warren Hoburg, current solar technologies would require a much larger drone with a much larger surface area for panels, coupled with a large, heavy battery. Solar also runs into issues during the winter months and at latitudes far from the equator because of shortened daylight hours.
The winning team’s final design was built out of lightweight materials like carbon fiber and Kevlar, weighing a total of 55 pounds empty and 150 pounds with payload and a tank full of gas. The parts can be easily dissembled, and shipped to affected areas and the payload is the perfect size for carrying a shoebox-sized communication device designed by MIT’s Lincoln Labs, which helped support the project.
Currently, the school is working with the FAA for permission to keep the drone in the air for the full five days as it continues its testing over the summer.