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5 mins read 05 Apr 2021

Australians Challenged to Develop High-Altitude Pseudo Satellites

Australians are being given the chance to develop high altitude platforms with satellite-like capabilities in a challenge organised by RMIT University in collaboration with key industry partners.

The Airbus Zephyr Uncrewed Aerial System (UAS). The Zephyr has a wingspan of 25-m and weight less than 75-kg, and operates altitudes of about 70,000'. The Zephyr is the only HAPS to have demonstrated persistence for months at a time. Credit: Airbus

Competition breeds innovation. That is the premise behind a new challenge open to Australian registered organisations to research and develop high-altitude pseudo satellite platforms in support of Australian science and national security capabilities.

The high-altitude pseudo satellites, or HAPS, need to be able to operate as high as 25-km up into the stratosphere. That’s well above the tens of thousands of commercial aircraft that criss-cross the globe each day at altitudes of up to about 12-km, but well below orbiting satellites that must be at least 250-km above the Earth. The cost of launching a HAPS would be far lower than a typical satellite, but it could be capable of carrying out many of the same tasks.

The HAPS Challenge is being jointly hosted by the Trusted Autonomous Systems Defence CRC (TAS DCRC), a defence cooperative research centre that fosters collaboration between the defence industry and research organisations, SmartSat CRC, a consortium of universities and research organisations, the Australian Department of Defence, and RMIT University. Applicants need to make their first submissions by May 24, and are expected to be ready to submit final documentation and conduct demonstrations of their systems by May 20, 2022.

Though high-altitude pseudo satellites, known as the missing links between drones and satellites, are a relatively new concept, there are several organisations around the world that are investing in the technology, including Airbus, Lockheed Martin, and even Facebook.

Claiming the Prize

SpaceShipOne, the winner of the Ansari X Prize in 2004. The X Prize was inspired by the prizes awarded to early 20th century aviators that aimed to accelerate development in the young industry. Credit: NASA

Financial incentives were offered to early 20th-century aviators to spur development in the burgeoning aviation industry, and less than 100 years later those prizes were the inspiration for similar competitions aimed at reducing the cost of spaceflight. The Ansari X Prize was an early example, with US$10-million being offered to the first non-government organisation to launch a reusable crewed spacecraft into space twice within two weeks.

The prize was won in 2004 by the Tier One project and their experimental spaceplane, SpaceShipOne. Responsible for the revolutionary design of the spaceplane was legendary American aerospace engineer Burt Rutan, and the first flight that exceeded an altitude of 100-km (in June 2004) made pilot Mike Melvill the first commercial astronaut.

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo project is based on the technology that was developed for SpaceShipOne, and is expected to launch with its first space tourists next year. It will conduct suborbital flights to an altitude of 110-km, carrying a crew of two with six passengers.

By the time the prize money of US$10-million was awarded by the X Prize Foundation, more than ten times that had been invested in new technologies in pursuit of the prize. The success of the competition drove spin-offs, not only in aerospace, but in biology, genomics, and engineering.

More recently the Google Lunar X Prize was offered to any privately funded team that could be the first to land a rover on the Moon. Although no team was able to launch by the extended deadline of 2018, an Israeli non-profit organisation SpaceIL managed to enter lunar orbit with their spacecraft Beresheet in 2019. Unfortunately, Beresheet crashed into the lunar surface after the main engine stopped operating momentarily during descent, but SpaceIL was deservedly awarded US$1-million for their efforts.

The HAPS Challenge

The HAPS Challenge is being jointly hosted by TAS DCRC, SmartSat CRC, Defence, and RMIT University. Credit: RMIT University

The aim of the HAPS Challenge is to energise local Australian development of key technologies that are needed to provide Australia with a low-cost platform for delivering intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and communications functionality at a level that would normally require vastly more expensive satellites.

The platforms are broadly categorised according to how they generate lift: either through aerostatic forces, like a balloon, or aerodynamic forces, like an airplane. To remain aloft for long periods of time a HAPS needs to take advantage of the conditions at altitude, where there are no clouds to block sunlight and the winds are only very light.

Amongst other technologies, applicants will need to develop launch and recovery procedures, station-keeping and manoeuvring capabilities, coordination and cooperation functionality for group deployment, and thermal management systems to cope with the extreme temperatures at altitude.

The systems will be evaluated on several benchmarks, including the ability of the platform to operate for over a week at altitudes above 50,000’ whilst remaining within 100-km of a designated position. There also needs to be real-time data and telemetry functionality, and a redundant communications architecture. And the production costs of the HAPS should be kept below AU$30,000.

A second stream of the challenge will focus on autonomous attitude control of the platform under a range of communication and sensor payloads. Such a system could act as a precursor or augmentation to a space-based solution.

The challenge is divided into three phases, each attracting different levels of funding, with candidates assessed at the completion of each phase. The schedule for the HAPS challenge is tight, but information sessions have been planned for April and there will be on-line seminars to answer questions and offer clarification to prospective applicants.

The HAPS Challenge is a great initiative that is providing a unique opportunity for small and large organisations within the Australian space sector to be involved contributing to our national capability.

In a country with a long history of innovation (including the pacemaker, the black box flight recorder, cochlear implants, WiFi, and Google Maps) the most difficult part of the challenge might be judging the winners.

Find out more about the HAPS Challenge here...