Vern Raburn wants to sell you on another aircraft. It is not a single-engined, very light jet this time. It is not even jet-powered. Or manned.
However, he says, it can “produce a step change in value”, while “replacing or augmenting some satellite missions” – and it can do all that for “several orders of magnitude less money”.
One-time Microsoft executive Raburn is best known as the founder of Eclipse Aviation, which created the very light jet sector and hoped that bringing mass production techniques to aircraft manufacturing would keep the price of an Eclipse 500 below $1 million. The plan proved optimistic, especially with the financial crisis looming, but Raburn resigned amid a refinancing shortly before the company went bankrupt in 2008. Eclipse was sold in liquidation to a group of investors that has revived production of the rebranded Eclipse Aerospace EA550 jet.
However, Raburn – as chairman and chief executive of Titan Aerospace – has returned to aviation with a familiar pitch.
The Solara “atmospheric satellite” is a solar-powered, unmanned aircraft designed to fly above 65,000ft (19,800m) for several years at a stretch, without landing to refuel. Solar cells across the wings, horizontal stabiliser and vertical stabiliser provide the power to the 5kW (6.7hp) electric motor to keep the aircraft aloft. Titan plans to release the Solara in 2015 for commercial applications ranging from fire monitoring to radio relay to border patrol.
“The idea of reusability is really where I’m going with this,” says Raburn.
Satellites cost between $500 million and $1 billion to build and launch into orbit, and the hardware is almost impossible to repair or upgrade once on station. In contrast, the Solara family of vehicles, including versions with 50m- and 60m-long wingspans, is aimed at providing an affordable alternative to satellites for missions in localised areas.
The concept follows a short-lived attempt at ultra-long-endurance flight by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). In 2010, the agency awarded a contract to a Boeing/Qinetiq team to design and fly a vehicle called Vulture, a semi-flexible, solar-powered wing. However, DARPA descoped the project two years later, assigning the remaining funds to developing photovoltaic cells.
Raburn dismisses such projects as over-funded and over-complex. “Unlike a lot of the other military- and DARPA-funded programmes we didn’t have a lot of money,” he says. “My experience with DARPA-based programmes is sometimes simplicity is not the goal.”
The lack of funding drove Titan to take a simpler approach to the design and operation of the vehicle. “We’re not on the bleeding edge with hydrogen-powered vehicles,” says Raburn, making an apparent reference to recent long-endurance research aircraft such as the Boeing Phantom Eye.
Titan Aerospace is already conducting flight tests on a subscale 10m-wingspan research aircraft, which is launched from the top of a moving pickup truck.
The scaled-up, 50m version will likely be launched by catapult. It will land at slow speed on a carbonfibre fixed keel instead of landing gear or even skids.
“It’s not really clever,” Raburn says. “It just works.”
The Solara, however, will have limitations. DARPA had laid down, as a key design challenge for a solar-powered vehicle, that it be able to collect enough energy to remain airborne at latitudes above 45° in winter.
Raburn at first scoffed at the issue: “That’s a bit of a red herring, that it’s limited by latitude. We could fly it on the poles without battery.”
However, he acknowledges that there are parts of the world, such as Scandinavia, where a solar-powered aircraft will be difficult to operate for multi-year periods. “If you don’t have enough sun, you’re not going to fly for a very long time,” he concedes.
So far, the software-turned-aviation entrepreneur is not describing a target market or an ideal customer for the Solara. As Raburn notes, when he opened the third computer store in Los Angeles in the late 1970s, he assumed it would take six months for the business to take off.
However, “it took closer to 15 years”.