Radical thinks the time has come for solar-powered, high-altitude autonomous aircraft | TechCrunch

Radical thinks the time has come for solar-powered, high-altitude autonomous aircraft | TechCrunch

While many eyes are on the space as Orbit develops into a thriving business ecosystem, fundamentalist Keeps things a little closer to the ground – but not too close. At its height, the solar-powered aircraft aims to achieve success. Facebook's infamous single Failed to improve tech and adopt more markets.

It's hard to believe that Facebook's ambitious plan Use solar-powered aircraft to provide Internet access to remote locations. It started a decade ago. But even though those dreams were dashed when the project was thwarted, the concept remained.

Ultralight aircraft in the stratosphere could, in principle, stay aloft almost indefinitely by powering their propellers with solar panels. Load it up with sensors, telecommunications gear, or anything else and you have a versatile, mobile asset that isn't hampered by orbital mechanics or weather vagaries.

Radical CEO James Thomas suggested the tech wasn't ready yet.

“There's been interest in these high-altitude, high-end airplanes for a long time,” he told TechCrunch in an interview. , even modern computers. Look at where we are now with battery tech: we're almost 2x (Aquila's) it puts us in a really strong position.”

The Seattle-based startup has raised a $4.5 million seed round to take it from a small-scale demonstration aircraft, which it recently successfully flew for 24 hours, to full scale. This full-sized craft would have a wingspan of around 100 feet, but weigh “as much as a person,” which I took to mean 100-200 pounds.

Radical founders have sub-scale demonstration aircraft.

Putting a full-scale aircraft into the stratosphere is Radical's primary goal, but that hasn't stopped them from exploring potential use cases.

“We think of what we're developing as a platform for permanent air infrastructure,” he said, but for use cases where an orbital asset isn't practical. For example, orbital images of a wildfire-prone area may arrive once an hour – too slow for a rapid response. But a high-altitude aircraft can provide live surveillance 24/7 for weeks at a time, or even change its location to track new threats.

For telecommunications, although Starlink is rapidly emerging as the go-to solution for connectivity in remote areas, it has significant limitations, such as the need for accurate ground infrastructure. There are many cases where a flying 5G station is a better bet (although you still need to work from backhaul).

Radical was one of my picks from Y Combinator's inaugural 2023 batch, and I wrote at the time:

I've always thought this idea was compelling but haven't yet found a business model for it. Anywhere connectivity could be a huge new differentiator for mobile networks, and I bet satellites will be useful but expensive and congested. Why not a giant glider? It's just as weird, but I admire the ambition.

Apparently I was right!

Thomas points out that a nice advantage of operating in the stratosphere is that you have a significantly reduced regulatory burden. Above the closely monitored civil and commercial airspace, it is much easier to operate and faster to obtain approval.

Radical isn't the only company looking at this. AALTO project at Airbus Aiming to fill similar gaps in telecom coverage, and Skydweller's massive platform (only 600 kg of batteries) Palantir is looking to enter a surveillance and intelligence role with the partnership.

Thomas said they benefit from a close relationship with the companies they work with, who “really want to work with the system.” After that, not a one-size-fits-all platform, but also not purely customized – it depends on the customer (although he called them customers, they're not yet the paying type; the company is pre-revenue). .

The goal right now is to get in the air within the next 12 months, prove that a full-size craft can fly and get them in a position to potentially start taking money.

The seed round was led by Scout Ventures, with additional funding from investors including Inflection Mercury Fund and Y Combinator.

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