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  • Rights: The University of Waikato Te Whare Wānanga o Waikato
    Published 25 July 2022 Referencing Hub media

    Mark Rocket and Dr Philipp Sueltrop from Kea Aerospace tell us about the Kea Atmos – a large autonomous aircraft capable of flying for months at a time. By using the stratosphere, the Kea Atmos can capture high-resolution images while avoiding weather issues and regular aircraft traffic.

    Questions for discussion:

    • What kinds of things might the Kea Atmos observe?
    • What advantage does solar power offer the Kea Atmos?
    • Why do you think it is an unmanned aircraft?
    • What do you think Mark means when he says, “At the moment, we’re not actually getting all the data we need to make informed decisions”?


    Mark Rocket

    Chief Executive Officer, Kea Aerospace
    Founder and President, Aerospace Christchurch

    Kea Aerospace is building an unmanned solar-powered aircraft that flies in the stratosphere for applications such as precision agriculture, environmental monitoring, disaster management, through to maritime domain awareness.

    The stratosphere is an interesting place. It’s a bit of a sweet spot because you’re above the jet streams and above the weather and you’ve got that broad enough perspective at a 20 kilometre altitude to take quite wide images at high resolution. So you’ve got aircraft most people are getting their high-resolution imagery from at the moment, and they fly a lot closer to the ground, and they burn a lot of avgas. It costs quite a lot of money with pilots et cetera. Then you’ve got satellites that are orbiting 300+ kilometres altitude.

    Dr Philipp Sueltrop

    Chief Technical Officer, Kea Aerospace

    The Kea Atmos is a very, very large unmanned aircraft with a wingspan of over 30 metres, so it would probably be the largest unmanned aircraft in the southern hemisphere by wingspan. On the other hand, it’s also probably one of the lightest aircraft for the size, so we’re only talking something over 100 kilograms.

    The real reason why we end up with these crazy configurations is because we need to have perpetual flight capability. Perpetual flight capability means we can fly for days or weeks or even months at a time in a single flight. And that’s only possible because we can recharge the batteries and the power system by having solar panels on the wings.

    Mark Rocket

    We’re very excited about using this technology platform for the benefit of the environment. We have a lot of interesting applications that we’re looking into. At the moment, we’re not actually getting all the data we need to make informed decisions. We’re only getting sporadic low-resolution updates.

    What we’re really interested in doing is having a whole fleet of these solar-powered stratospheric aircraft operating continuously around the planet. Imagine if we had one of these over the cities continually monitoring our environment. We can see where the problems are immediately, and we can use change detection technology to work out where the environment is changing and what we need to do to make things right.

    Mark Rocket, Kea Aerospace
    Dr Philipp Sueltrop, Kea Aerospace
    Kea Atmosphere concept animation, prototype test flight, drone footage of different land uses and animation of stratosphere, Kea Aerospace
    Drone shot of commercial fishing boat, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, CC BY 3.0
    Satellite image of New Zealand, NASA, CC BY 2.0
    Satellite images of Mt Ruapehu, city, red-coloured lake and surrounding area and sediment washing from river to ocean, Xerra Earth Observation Institute

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