Stratospheric UAVs–mostly airships–that stay airborne flying for months or years will form a new communications and sensing infrastructure, according to the Market Intel Group (www.marketintelgroup.com). Government contracts are funding development of such UAVs at present, but commercial markets will eventually dwarf defense requirements.
“There’s a huge commercial potential, especially in those regions that have not developed alternative ground-based infrastructure, such as Africa, China or India,” said analyst Ed Herlik. He estimated the commercial market potential at $250 billion, versus only $2 billion for defense. The applications include mobile telephony, wireless internet, direct broadcast television and radio, and overhead imagery. Herlik’s latest report for the Market Intel Group examines the potential payloads: “How and where the money will be made,” he said.
A number of mostly small and secretive companies are eyeing the potential, Herlik added. They include Swiss-domiciled StratXX and Global Near Space Services of the U.S. According to the latter’s Web site, the U.S. Naval Air Warfare Center awarded the company a contract to begin development of its StarLight stratoship, which would fly at 85,000 feet.
Herlik said the optimum altitude for stratospheric airship UAVs is 65,000 feet. Notions of going higher are unrealistic because the gas volume of an airship (for example, the helium) doubles every 10,000 feet above 50,000 feet. But one potential drag on developments is regulatory–gaining permission from airspace authorities for these type of operations.
As for the defense markets, “near-space UAVs will draw orders away from both the high-altitude (Reaper) and jet-stream (Global Hawk) markets,” Herlik predicted.