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Large drone test flight successful; Lanai activities still being planned

Drones are part of a plan to bring broadband internet to rural areas

A drone that is about the size of a football field and powered by both electric and solar was test flown in New Mexico last week. Officials said that test flights are planned for Lanai as part of a long-term plan to bring internet connectivity to rural areas worldwide. Photo courtest of George Purdy

Test flights of a solar-powered high-altitude platform system (HAPS) were conducted last week at Spaceport America in New Mexico, and officials said that test flights are still planned for Lanai as part of a long-term plan to bring internet connectivity to rural areas worldwide.

HAPSMobile Inc., a subsidiary of SoftBank Corp. which is privately funding this project, has expanded test flight operations at New Mexico’s Spaceport America for the development of the drone, which has a 260-foot wingspan and can fly in the stratosphere for extended periods of time at an altitude of up to 65,000 feet.

“Last year, we conducted a number of low-altitude tests at the NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center in California, and based on our learnings and results, decided to expand our options to advance the business,” HAPSMobile spokesman Matthew Nicholson told The Maui News last month. “We continue to have test flight plans for Lanai and decided to include Spaceport America as a new test base as part of our mid- to long-term business plan.”

Nicholson said that Spaceport America will help HAPSMobile and AeroVironment obtain government certification.

The Hawk30 project had received some pushback from local residents over 5G cellphone access and from government officials over land use and permitting issues. The Research Corp. of the University of Hawaii withdrew its original use determination application and had planned to resubmit a new one in November, seeking to use agricultural lands on Lanai to develop and test two high-altitude platform drones.

The new application has not been submitted yet. 

George Purdy, co-owner of Drone Services Hawaii who helped bring the program to Lanai, said earlier that there are no other updates at this time.

“We’re extremely pleased that we successfully completed all basic tests. The test flight validates the research results we have steadily accumulated, and the graceful flight at our new facility in Spaceport America has given us great confidence,” said Junichi Miyakawa, representative director and chief technology officer of SoftBank Corp. and CEO of HAPSMobile, in a news release. “Based on our experience and learnings from these basic tests, I feel there are even greater possibilities for the HAPS business. 

“We’ll continue to work toward our ultimate goal of bridging the world’s digital divide and revolutionizing mobile connectivity by leveraging the HAPS platform.”

With all basic tests done in New Mexico, HAPSMobile will continue with preparations for stratospheric test flights, according to the news release. 

During the test flights, the Sunglider, the newly renamed drone, reached altitudes higher than those of previous flights and maintained high altitudes for a long duration. The goal of the program is to provide education, as well as develop and test the airworthiness of two high-altitude platform drones, as well as test long-duration flights over deep valleys, remote land areas and the ocean, solely powered by solar and electricity.

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