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HALE UAV at 60,000 Ft (20,000 M) – Flying in the Stratosphere

Basic mission

The basic mission of our UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) HALE (high altitude, long endurance) is to hover over a point on earth for long periods of time. Exactly why is not important at this point in the discussion. The objective is probably to replace a communication satellite.

Speed ​​is not important, since we are just flying over a place. Energy efficiency is. In fact, the less energy it needs to maintain altitude, the more payload it can carry. Considering what I just said, I hope one word came to mind: glider. HALE drones look like gliders. Low wing loading, slow flight, with long, skinny wings.

If the drone is going to stay in place for years, it needs a pretty good power source. If a nuclear fusion reactor is the first thought that comes to mind, you’re wrong. Instead, think simple and proven. Consider solar cells. Many of them. The good news is that our glider already has big wings, so they’re going to be covered with solar cells.

Difficult conditions

At 60,000 feet, 93% of the atmosphere is below you. Atmospheric pressure is only 7% of what it is at sea level. Air density, or the weight of air, is only 9.5% of what it weighs at sea level. The average temperature is a bone chill of -75 F (-60 C). Why would anyone want to fly at this altitude?

Why 60,000 feet

As I explained in the first part of this series of articles, commercial aircraft flights and most weather conditions are below 40,000 feet (12,000 m). It is therefore the absolute floor from which we can fly.

There are a few other reasons why we fly even higher than that. First, at 40,000 feet the winds can really pick up. The average wind speed at this altitude is 50 MPH (80 KPH). Again, that’s average – it could easily be double that. Not so much of a problem with an airliner flying over 500 MPH, but a real problem with our flimsy and slow flying drone.

The average wind speed at 60,000 feet drops to just 15 MPH (25 KPH). That’s excellent news. This means we don’t need to fly any faster than we would anyway. Slower is generally more efficient.

There is another very important reason why we want to fly higher than we absolutely need to. When flying over a location, we’re going to be in darkness about half the time. Solar cells do not work in the dark. Maintaining the same altitude for 12 hours would require a large number of rechargeable batteries. To save on battery weight, we will slowly drop altitude at night. We still have to avoid airliners and weather, but now our UAV glider will be more efficient.

Max Endurance Speed

How fast should we fly? Well, an airplane flies at different speeds depending on the focus at the time. A speed well known to glider pilots is called best glide speed or best lift/drag ratio (L/D). This is the speed at which the kite is most efficient.

The speed we are interested in is called the flâneur or maximum endurance speed. Another name for this is Minimum Power Speed ​​Required, for obvious reasons. This is the speed at which we need the least energy to maintain altitude. For a typical airplane, this is about 76% of the best L/D speed value.

There is a big catch. At this altitude, the air is too thin for us to fly 3.3 times faster just to generate the same amount of lift. This means that if the maximum endurance speed is 20 MPH (32 KPH) at sea level, we would need to fly at 66 MPH (106 KPH) at our cruising altitude. This, unfortunately, also requires 3.3 times the amount of energy to sustain. All of a sudden, designing our UAV glider doesn’t seem so easy!

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