A solar-powered variant of AeroVironment’s hand-launched Puma AE small UAS has matched the continuous flight time of over nine hours attained by a hybrid fuel cell-powered model in 2008. The prototype solar Puma AE stayed in the air for a total of nine hours and 11 minutes, eclipsing the two-hour flight time of the standard battery-powered Puma AE and comparable competitor aircraft by a considerable margin.
The solar-powered Puma featured ultra-thin Gallium Arsenide (GaAs) solar cells manufactured by Alta Devices. According to Roy Minson, AeroVironment senior vice president, the GaAs solar cells produce enough power for long-range flight, while adding negligible weight to the aircraft. They use the power of the sun to extend the life of a new long endurance battery that already increases the flight time of a non-solar-powered Puma AE from two hours to more than three hours.
Although the Puma AE has been used by the US military for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance since 2008, the recent record flight came in the wake of FAA approval in July of the UAS for commercial missions. Its approval for a “Restricted Category” rating was a first for a hand-launched UAS and clears the way for commercial missions in US airspace, such as oil spill monitoring and ocean surveys. The company expects the Puma AE to be deployed in the Arctic Circle this year to do just that.
The solar Puma AE is currently still at the research and development phase, but AeroVironment expects to have a production version ready for early next year.