"Lighter-Than-Air" Autonomous Blimp Designed For "Ultra-Endurance" Flights Reaches Milestone

Researchers from the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) have developed a self-sufficient autonomous aircraft that transforms into a "lighter-than-air" blimp to propel itself forward has conducted first test flight.

The Phoenix, an "ultra-long endurance autonomous aircraft," uses helium to rise into the air and then moves forward by "inhaling" and compressing air. Solar cells line the aircraft's wings, indicating there are no limits on how long it could remain air bound.

Researchers said the Phoenix is the first ever aircraft to be powered by such innovative technology. The aircraft measures 15 meters long and has a 10.5-meter wingspan.

The aircraft has been designed for businesses and scientific use, and its inventors believe it could revolutionize the telecommunications industry.

"The Phoenix spends half its time as a heavier-than-air airplane, the other as a lighter-than-air balloon," explains Andrew Rae, professor of engineering at the University of the Highlands, who is the lead engineer on the project. "The repeated transition between these states provides the sole source of propulsion."

"This system allows the Phoenix to be completely self-sufficient," he adds in a statement. "Vehicles based on this technology could be used as pseudo satellites and would provide a much cheaper option for telecommunication activities. Current equivalent airplanes are very complex and very expensive. By contrast, Phoenix is almost expendable and so provides a user with previously unavailable options.”

Rae explains the aircraft could be used to broadcast 5G coverage to remote areas, claiming the aircraft is a low-cost solution to launching expensive Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites.

The Phoenix was successfully tested inside the Drystack at Trafalgar Wharf in Portsmouth, UK's largest indoor boat storage facility.

The partners involved in the Phoenix project are:

•    Banks Sails (fuselage materials and manufacture)
•    IQE (photovoltaic cells)
•    Stirling Dynamics (flight control system)
•    TCS Micropumps (pumps and valves, computer-aided design, and flight control actuators)
•    The Centre for Process Innovation (project management and photovoltaic cells)
•    The Manufacturing Technology Centre (flight control system and hardware testing)
•    The National Composites Centre (carbon-fiber wing and tail structures, wing skins, and the gondola)
•    University of Bristol (carbon-fiber wing and tail structures, wing skins, and the gondola)
•    Newcastle University (reversible hydrogen fuel cell)
•    University of Sheffield (wind-tunnel testing)
•    University of Southampton (rechargeable battery)
•    University of the Highlands and Islands (platform and flight control surface design)

Rae and his team are now exploring partnerships with aerospace and defense manufacturers to take the technology to the next phase of development.