Mercator I UAV will be airborne for months taking quality pictures at a fraction of the cost of satellite imagery

Belgian technology research centre VITO has ordered a proof-of-concept prototype of the Mercator I solar-powered high-altitude unmanned air vehicle designed by Belgium's Verhaert. The prototype will fly in June 2005.

Built of carbonfibre, the air vehicle will have a 16m (52ft) -spanwing completely covered with solar cells. Mercator I will have an empty weight of 16kg and carry a 2kg multi-spectral camera payload.

Four electric motors, each driving a two-blade propeller, will allow the UAV to cruise at 35kt (65km/h) and stay airborne for four to six months.

Mercator I will be launched from a weather balloon at 100,000ft (30,500m) and will loiter at latitude 53° north over Belgium at altitudes between 40,000ft and 60,000ft,taking pictures as ordered from the ground.

At the end of its mission Mercator I will stop its engines and descend at 5m/s, at a 45° glide angle, to land at a yet-to-be selected spot, probably a military airfield. The UAV will be caught in a net as the aircraft will not have landing gear.

The aim is to develop a platform that will produce high-quality pictures at a fraction of the price that users now have to pay for satellite imagery.

To meet the timescale, Kuiberke-based Verhaert, which built the Proba satellite for the European Space Agency, has teamed withthe UK's Qinetiq. Verhaert will leadthe joint venture, with partner Qinetiq integrating the systems, subsystems and software into the aircraft and industrialising the concept.



Source: Flight International