“We don't have to invent anything. It's in how we integrate and operate it,” he says, citing lightweight carbon-fiber structures, high-efficiency solar cells, high-power-density batteries and miniaturized payloads. “This combination of technologies gives us a very lightweight aircraft with a really big span,” Raburn says, adding that this provides the area needed for solar energy collection and span loading required to withstand turbulence enroute to 65,000 ft.
Titan's 50-meter-span (164-ft.) Solar 50 will carry a payload of around 50 lb., increasing to 250 lb. for the 60-meter-span Solara 60. Endurance will start at weeks, “and we will build up to months,” Raburn says. “We don't know yet if it will go for years.” He cites uncertainty about how long components such as bearings will operate before breaking, or how many charge/discharge cycles that batteries will withstand. “We are learning a lot from the satellite industry,” he says.
The aircraft are being designed so new generations of higher-efficiency solar cells and higher-power-density batteries can be plugged in, extending endurance and increasing payload. “They are designed to be easily upgradable,” he says.
First flight of the Solara 50 is expected in late spring, and Titan plans a year-long test program while it works with the FAA on certification and prepares for production and operation. Certification is a major hurdle to be overcome. The FAA is only beginning to allow commercial operations by civil UAVs and is starting with systems already operated by the Pentagon. “The FAA is an issue, but we hope they will be ready,” says Raburn. “I am cautiously optimistic.”
Whether Titan's business model will be selling UAVs or providing services, “we don't yet—it could be either or both,” he says. “There is not a market there today, but we think there is going to be and that we fit into a slot that cannot be done with UAVs today.”