An innovative aircraft that turns into a “lighter-than-air” balloon to propel itself forward has been flown for the first time. The Phoenix is designed to repeatedly switch between being lighter and heavier than air to generate thrust and allow it to stay in the skies indefinitely.
Officially known as an “ultra-long endurance autonomous aircraft,” it was developed by scientists in Scotland and flown over a distance of 120 meters (394 feet) during its first test flight in March. The blimp-like aircraft, which is 15 meters long and has a wingspan of 10.5 meters, has been designed for businesses and scientific use, and its creators hope it will revolutionize the telecommunications industry
“The Phoenix spends half its time as a heavier-than-air aeroplane, the other as a lighter-than-air balloon,” explains Andrew Rae, professor of engineering at the University of the Highlands and Islands Perth College, who was involved in the project. “The repeated transition between these states provides the sole source of propulsion.
“This system allows the Phoenix to be completely self-sufficient,” he adds in a statement. “Vehicles based on this technology could be used as pseudo satellites and would provide a much cheaper option for telecommunication activities.”
The team behind the aircraft also believe it could be used to provide Wi-Fi coverage to remote areas. The vehicle’s fuselage contains helium, allowing to ascend, as well as an airbag that inhales and compresses air, enabling it to descend.
It also features solar cells on its wings and tail, which charge the battery that powers its valves and pumps. Gas-filled dirigible-style aircraft have been making a return to the skies in recent years. The Airlander 10, a massive helium-filled airship claimed as the world’s biggest aircraft is hoping to make its commercial debut in the next few years.