Inflatable, solar-powered plane takes off in Toronto

Hybrid blimp, fixed-wing aircraft designed for cargo missions to remote and hard-to-reach locations.

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by Design Engineering Staff

Toronto-based Solar Ship announced it is currently building and flying registered prototypes aimed at the production of a line of solar-powered aircraft that may one day carry up to 1,000 kilograms a distance of approximately 1,000 kilometers per day. The introductory aircraft, called Caracal after the African wild cat, will run on solar power generated from the PV panels on its wings.

Given its short take-off and landing requirements of 50 to 100 meters (approximately the length of a soccer field), the company says the aircraft is perfectly suited for disaster relief efforts, field research or any situation in which specialty cargo needs transport to remote locations with little or no infrastructure.

The Solar Ships are what the company refers to as “buoyantly assisted,” melding the characteristics of both lighter-than-air blimps and fixed wing planes. Its delta-wing is inflated with helium to assist with take-off, increase its cargo carrying capacity and decrease power requirements during flight.

However, the aircraft isn’t lighter-than-air, relying mainly on the aerodynamic shape of its wings for lift. The upside, says the company, is that this design removes the ballast issues associated with blimps. More importantly, being heavier-than-air makes Solar Ship’s design more maneuverable, structurally sounds and resistant to wind and weather conditions than traditional dirigibles.

For power, the prototype aircraft relies on solar panels applied to the top of its wing to drive its propellers. Because of the cube square law, increasing the wingspan increases the solar generation area by the square and the lifting gas assistance by the cube. This results in improvements to payload capacity and range that dramatically increase as it scales up. Depending on the application, it can be run as a hybrid (with auxiliary combustion engines) or entirely on solar power.

The company’s unique airship is the brain child of Solar Ship founder and CEO, Jay Godsall, and James DeLaurier, the company’s chief aerospace engineer and a professor at the University of Toronto’s Institute for Aerospace Studies, best known for his work on ornithopters.

Together, the two plan to eventually market two more progressively larger aircraft. Following the Caracal, the company intends to build the 1,000 kg/1,000 km-per-day Chui and the much larger cargo freighter, Nanuq, which will haul 12 tonnes for unlimited distances, the company projects.