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Astigan: a high-altitude UAV set to revolutionise the way we look at Earth

The UK’s Ordnance Survey and a team of aeronautic engineers are developing a solar powered, high altitude pseudo satellite (HAPS) UAV, with aims of changing Earth observation and global mapping.

Astigan’s aircraft during a test flight

The enterprise, Astigan, will give quicker and better images of the Earth, captured using imaging systems mounted on a UAV flying at 20 km, and processed by Ordnance Survey‘s (OS) systems in geospatial production and mapping developed over more than 200 years.

The aircraft weighs 149 kg, carries a payload up to 25 kg, and has a wingspan of 38 m. It can collect data over wider areas than conventional aerial imagery capture. Flying a pre-determined track it can travel up to 2,000 km a day, or hold station above a specified location. Its altitude and up to 90 day duration provides services almost comparable to, and in its deployment flexibility better than, satellites.

The aircraft can carry a range of interchangeable telecommunications equipment and earth observation instruments such as high-precision cameras, atmospheric monitoring systems and multi-spectral sensors. These sensor packages could be interchangeable with systems developed for use in Cubesats.

Since 2014, Astigan’s UAV has completed eight full scale flights. The company is working with regulators to develop policy for flying above controlled airspace. When successful, this should mean Astigan and similar UAV can remain on station over cities where no normal aircraft can, and react immediately to changes in mission priorities, easily diverting to focus on other areas of interest – a capability satellites have difficulty matching.

Potential customers for near real-time information products including geospatial data and mapping from systems such as Astigan or Airbus’ Zephyr include organisations working in:

  • Environment – Monitor pollution; natural hazards; climate change; water levels; ice caps; surface deformation; deforestation; maritime activity.
  • Geospatial Mapping – High-resolution imagery map changes to the built and natural environment; monitor transport networks; understand land use change; support land administration activities; urbanisation; infrastructure or route maps for autonomous vehicles.
  • Agriculture – Study seasonal changes in farm land; support precision farming; monitor soil erosion; analyse crop yield.
  • Communication – Provide data in disaster emergencies; improve communication in remote areas; assist Air Traffic Control in monitoring aircraft progress, especially in busy locations and ‘blind spots’; deliver meteorological information.
  • Commercial Security and Resilience – Provide near real-time information to support disaster response and large-scale events; identify emergency situations; manage borders and national security; track mobile or stationary assets.

Astigan Ltd is a UK company, established in 2014 by Ordnance Survey and a team of aerospace innovators, including founding director Andy Elson of Elson Space Engineering Ltd, Neil Ackroyd, a Co-Founding Director of Astigan and Acting CEO of Ordnance Survey, and Brian Jones, now Managing Director in Astigan Ltd.

Brian Jones said: “By the end of 2019 we aim to be completing endurance flight testing, building up to 90 days non-stop, which is the operational capability we’re striving for. The UK has developed this kind of technology, delivering satellite capabilities, unparalleled flexibility and improved efficiency, all at a vastly reduced cost. We look forward to seeing the aircraft deliver on its outstanding potential, which should provide a range of scientific and environmental benefits.”

Since it was founded in the 1790s Ordnance Survey has invested in new technologies to improve its ability to capture up-to-date and accurate geospatial information. OS is the national mapping agency for Great Britain, and a world-leading geospatial data and technology organisation. As a branch of the UK government, it has provided many services to the UK and other customers, including aerial imagery during the First World War, and the UK’s national geospatial database.


Opinion

As we’ve said elsewhere, it’s good to see British aerospace engineering alive and kicking outside the big multi-nationals. The market for HAPS UAV type capabilities is obvious, and proven by the military use of similar technologies (albeit of different requirements), as these things tend to be. A civilian market seems likely to be as valuable if not more so, but it cannot be denied that having a customer on board – indeed as part of a development team – from the get-go is a huge boost to any programme.