back to article I am just a mapper: Solar drones take to the skies above Blighty

The Ordnance Survey reckons it has succeeded where Google and Facebook failed, with the launch of a solar-powered drone fleet that will hover permanently high above Blighty. The Astigan high-altitude "pseudo satellite" (HAPS) is British technology, and was co-developed with the Survey, which owns it. Brian Jones, former RAF …

  1. sandman

    Brilliant

    "The vehicle has a 38m wingspan but weighs little more than a typical sysadmin: 149kg (328lb)."

    1. Alister Silver badge

      Re: Brilliant

      Pah, I weigh 101.6kg you cheeky sods...

      1. Craig 2

        Re: Brilliant

        So your actual weight is 0.68 sysadmins, where's that on the SMI? (sysadmin mass index) Could this be a new Reg unit?

      2. Stevie Silver badge

        Re: Pah, I weigh 101.6kg

        Is that with or without the belt-mounted Leatherman tools, bits for the Leatherman tools, Wenger Swiss Army Knife, Victorinox Swiss Army Knife, Stanly Multi-Tool, Work Cellphone, Private Cellphone, Apple Newton (for street cred), Spring-Loaded Tape Measure (for snaking network cable), Mini-Maglite, and carabiner loaded with a ridiculously silly number of sharp car paint scratchers and upholstery rippers?

        Or aren't you a *real* SA?

        1. Not an Anonymous Coward

          Re: Pah, I weigh 101.6kg

          @Stevie, I was under the impression that *real* SA's had the Gerber Legend multitool. The Leatherman was the choice of their PHY before they knew any better.

          1. Stevie Silver badge

            Re: Pah, I weigh 101.6kg

            Real SAs would have both. The Gerber is in the lower right leg pocket of the cargo pants with the miniature butane soldering iron and solder tape.

          2. Stevie Silver badge

            Re: Gerber Legend

            Though I have to say, the Leatherman Wave (new iteration) and a set of skinny bits to fit the bit holder are more thunderingly useful than the Gerber tool, or any tool with a dedicated driver. The Allen Keys work spectacularly well, as does the Philips - the most positive and easy-to-use folding Philips driver I've ever had in my hands. Even the Torx bits work above expectations.

            The only downsides to the Wave are the propensity to gift the user with a really good blood blister if the pliers slip when really giving whatever-it-is a damn good squeezing, the way the cutter jaws can bind up while cutting soft and thinner wire (a problem with all folding pliers because none of the ones I've seen lock in the "pliers deployed" configuration) and the scissors are not great for cutting lightweight paper.

        2. Geoffrey W Silver badge

          Re: Pah, I weigh 101.6kg

          What, no ferret, for pulling cable through small channels?

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Pah, I weigh 101.6kg

            What, no ferret, for pulling cable through small channels?

            Didn't Richard Gere have a storage solution for that?

            Oh no, wait, that was a hamster, my bad.

            I'll go and hide now :)

          2. Stevie Silver badge

            Re: What, no ferret,

            That's what the tape measure is for.

      3. This post has been deleted by its author

    2. Unep Eurobats
      Paris Hilton

      Re: Brilliant

      A sysadmin is an El Reg unit now? What's that in diplodocuses?

      1. Captain Scarlet Silver badge

        Re: Brilliant

        Well if we have a syadmin as a unit, surely we should have a PFY, BOFH and PHB El Reg Units as well?

        1. baud

          Re: Brilliant

          The half-life of a PHB working with a BOFH is too short to reliable measure.

  2. John Robson Silver badge

    What can you fit in 25kg...

    ... and what's the power budget of the payload (assuming that it draws power from the batteries that power the craft as well).

    Was also rather disappointed by their 'plane/stratosphere/orbit' comparison... you'd have thought that scale would be important in that animation...

    1. Herring`

      Re: What can you fit in 25kg...

      I couldn't watch the animation, but 60,000ft is a bit less than 20km while a stable low earth orbit is more like 200km. Since the demise of Concorde, no passenger jets get higher than about 45,000 feet.

      1. Martin Gregorie Silver badge

        Re: What can you fit in 25kg...

        As far as I know there are currently no military aircraft, apart from a few U-2s, that can operate at 67,000 ft., so for all practical purposes its above any other aircraft that is likely to be flying over the UK.

        NOTE that, rocket planes and U-2s excluded, it seems likely that the highest flying aircraft today is Perlan 2, a pure glider, that is awaiting confirmation of a record for its flight on September 2, 2018 which reached 76,124 ft in Patagonian mountain wave off the Andes.

        The story is here: http://www.perlanproject.org/blog/perlan-2-soars-above-76000-feet

        and a longer film is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KE792Y9hyww

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: What can you fit in 25kg...

          Apparently, the service ceiling of the MiG-31 is 25000+ m (82000+ ft) but I doubt it goes that high very often - since the demise of the SR-71 there's little need.

      2. Mark 85 Silver badge

        Re: What can you fit in 25kg...

        I take it they figure the winds at that altitude are not a problem? Given the size, weight, and no information on power or airspeed, I'd think the winds could cause problems with holding station over a given area.

    2. Geoff Johnson

      Re: What can you fit in 25kg...

      1/6th of a Sysadmin, apparently.

      1. AS1
        Coat

        Re: What can you fit in 25kg...

        Holy admins! Could we fit one dehydrated?

        Mine's the one with heavy water in the pocket.

      2. Ken 16 Silver badge

        Re: What can you fit in 25kg...

        A sysadmins lunch?

    3. Francis Boyle Silver badge

      Nothing wrong

      with a log scale.

      1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: Nothing wrong

        As used by dendrochronologists.

  3. Drone Pilot

    _The vehicle has a 38m wingspan but weighs little more than a typical sysadmin: 149kg (328lb)._

    Not very nice. I'm 148KGs :(

  4. Champ

    Just because you're paranoid...

    ...doesn't mean they're not out to get you. I started typing this as a joke, but now it sounds a bit too believable.

    The OS story is a cover. These devices are really so the authorities can track and respond to the brexit riots

    1. DropBear Silver badge
      Trollface

      Re: Just because you're paranoid...

      Just wait until they start parachuting in peacekeeping forces too - I reckon 25Kg is enough for a smallish, really young shark with a laser...

      1. Snowy
        Joke

        Re: Just because you're paranoid...

        In keeping with your name I would assume they would use dropbears, just load then up in some guided dart and your done!

        1. Evil Auditor Silver badge

          Re: Just because you're paranoid...

          Dropbears won't work. They drop in Straya. You take 'em over to Blighty, right around the other side of the globe, they'll drift up and vanish into space. It's true.

      2. MonsieurTM

        Re: Just because you're paranoid...

        Surely "frikkin'" laser???

      3. Rusty 1

        Re: Just because you're paranoid...

        They could be ingenious and deploy single-use flying squirrels with frikkin' lasers.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Just because you're paranoid...

          We could teach them to flap, to overcome the single use problem..

          No, wait, no solutionising before you have defined the problem. Although it's more fun.

      4. Ken 16 Silver badge

        Re: Just because you're paranoid...

        or an ill tempered sea bass?

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Just because you're paranoid...

      "The OS story is a cover. These devices are really so the authorities can track and respond to the brexit riots"

      Nah, this is our response to being kicked out of Gallileo. When you're lost, you ring up the OS and they have a look at the latest imagery, and then say "Do a U turn".

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Trollface

        Re: Just because you're paranoid...

        Q: "How do I get my drone to Gatwick?"

        A: "I wouldn't start from here."

      2. adam 40

        Re: Just because you're paranoid...

        "Nah, this is our response to being kicked out of Gallileo"

        "What can you fit in a 25kg payload"?

        How about an atomic clock, a computer, and a microwave transmitter - with a constellation of drones, we could have our own UK GPS network up and running in months.

    3. Andytug
      Big Brother

      Re: Just because you're paranoid...

      *Farage's Law invoked*

      1. BigSLitleP

        Re: Just because you're paranoid...

        Is that a law that states when you are irrelevant, start your own group?

        1. macjules Silver badge

          Re: Just because you're paranoid...

          No. That's the Rees-Mogg Principle. The Law of Farage is, "prostitutes do not care about the colour of your money or where you earned it".

      2. This post has been deleted by its author

    4. Stevie Silver badge

      Re: Just because you're paranoid...

      No, you're good because as someone here assured me, you *can* shoot down drones using a Karcher pressure washer.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    " The Astigan high-altitude "pseudo satellite" (HAPS) is British technology"

    So is the major competition:- Zephyr, although that's now owned by Airbus. To my knowledge, Zephyr currently has the endurance record for an unmanned aircraft of just under 26 days continuous flight.

    1. Ledswinger Silver badge

      So is the major competition:- Zephyr, although that's now owned by Airbus.

      IIRC Zephyr had some defence funding? So there's no way on earth they'll share that with anybody like OS, even if OS can claim that all their staff have the necessary clearance. So probably very sensible to invest in an SME to build their own.

  6. m0rt Silver badge

    I wonder what the radar and heat signature of this is like....?

    1. Wellyboot Silver badge

      Given the construction materials, not much RCS at all would be my guess. I'd also hazard that at 20,000m with the sun in the same part of the sky relative to the observee many military grade ground based systems wouldn't get a lock either.

  7. Peter Galbavy

    How did you know my weight? Are you using a solar powered drone to spy on me? And I've not been a (professional) sysadmin for years either.

  8. DropBear Silver badge

    The 38m is the single number wot makes things make sense - no drone of any kind of more conventional dimensions has enough surface area to gather any meaningful amount of solar energy as far as powered flight is concerned; but yes, once your wingspan is measured in bus lengths, staying up there for quite a while definitely can be done and has been done. Although I'm not sure roads and rivers move around often enough to warrant 24/7 surveillance especially once you already mapped them; but as far as up-to-date "satellite imagery" is concerned, this would definitely help...

    1. Ledswinger Silver badge

      I'm not sure roads and rivers move around often enough to warrant 24/7 surveillance especially once you already mapped them

      Don't forget that a lot of the world is still not mapped, and OS probably have their eye on the ability to remotely map entire nations as a commercial exercise. And being well out of range of ground fire would enable mapping in countries where you'd not want to have anything with the range of a Manpad.

      If you can sort out the resolution to an acceptable degree then there's still UK applications that would benefit from repeated re-scans. So power line clearances to vegetation, water leaks.

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        "Don't forget that a lot of the world is still not mapped, and OS probably have their eye on the ability to remotely map entire nations as a commercial exercise. "

        In the BBC version of the story, they say the OS is looking at selling their services to countries where mapping is very expensive due to either large generally inaccessible areas or the country just doesn't have the cash to splurge on quality satellite mapping.

    2. JoshOvki

      "I'm not sure roads and rivers move around often enough to warrant 24/7 surveillance especially once you already mapped them"

      Doing some navigation practice with OS maps recently. My mate had a 2011 map, and I had a 2016 map. A surprising number of boundary marks had moved or were totally gone which made it much more challenging for him. Mountains and rivers don't move much, but they don't only map mountains and rivers (they also have pubs marked!)

    3. Alister Silver badge

      I'm not sure roads and rivers move around often enough to warrant 24/7 surveillance especially once you already mapped them;

      Them oxbow loops are tricky little bastards, they'll jump around as soon as your back is turned...

    4. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      I'd like to see a good national survey of crop marks in a dry summer and a survey in low sun conditions.

  9. Graham Cunningham

    Police drama

    I hope they have those cameras I see on the police dramas that my wife watches, that can zoom in to distinguish the exact shade of nail varnish that the perp is wearing...

    1. John Robson Silver badge

      Re: Police drama

      Are those the cameras that can pick up the colour of nail varnish in the reflection off a car headlight, which can be seen in the reflection of a door handle, which is half a mile away...

    2. Stevie Silver badge

      Re: Police drama

      Yes indeed. And why oh why don't newagents and bodega owners fit these instead of the older model only good for footage of the Loch Ness Monster?

  10. Dippywood

    What goes up with the aid of a launcher...

    Crashes hard without one?

    1. Wellyboot Silver badge

      Re: What goes up with the aid of a launcher...

      I had a similar thought. Landing on the launch carrier frame would make a good video.

    2. Francis Boyle Silver badge

      Re: What goes up with the aid of a launcher...

      Navy pilots might disagree.

      1. defiler Silver badge

        Re: What goes up with the aid of a launcher...

        They call themselves Aviators - say they're better than pilots.

        1. OssianScotland

          Re: What goes up with the aid of a launcher...

          But have they got the "right stuff"?

        2. Stevie Silver badge

          Re: They call themselves Aviators

          Because in the Navy a pilot does a different job involving steering the ships.

          Lest you think this is daft sailor nomenclature nonsense, talk about stalling the engine in a small aircraft in front of an aircraft pilot and get lectured - endlessly - on the proper use of "stall" when it comes to aeroplanes.

        3. defiler Silver badge

          Re: What goes up with the aid of a launcher...

          Downvote? Alright, own up. Who hates The Right Stuff?

          Also, it's Chuck Yeager's birthday today. 96, apparently bucking the theory of "live fast, die young."

      2. Dippywood

        Re: What goes up with the aid of a launcher...

        As well they might - however the runway used was considerably more 'conventional' than the ones the navy pilots have with their launchers on. They get arrestors too, IIRC

    3. John Robson Silver badge

      Re: What goes up with the aid of a launcher...

      But it also comes down *really* slowly... The speed at which that thing started flying was nice and low (minimise energy expenditure cutting through the air.

      You could probably catch it without too much difficulty - Mr Steven would be fast enough...

    4. Big John Silver badge

      Re: What goes up with the aid of a launcher...

      Such drones don't have any wheels for the takeoff roll, and thus there's no ground clearance for the props if they could roll, or even skid. These aircraft are a lot like spacecraft, in that they must shave off every possible gram of mass, but also while enlarging the aircraft physically as much as possible! Those two things don't naturally go together, so extreme (and expensive) measures are utilized to get it done.

      I'd guess they dispense with all landing gear other than a tiny steel skid along the bottom. They can't take off on that, but on the landing approach the props could be stopped and moved to the horizontal position just before touchdown, keeping the props clear of the ground.

      Then maybe, just maybe, they'll get her down in one piece. Considering how sensitive such a large, lightweight vehicle is to the slightest zephyr, good luck with that. It probably makes safely landing a dirigible look easy.

      1. Stevie Silver badge

        Re: don't have any wheels

        Then come landing time they'll be needing International Rescue with their three big aeroplane landing gear trucks, or possibly, 1/24th scale leccy R/C models of same.

  11. Ken 16 Silver badge

    I expect these to give the border with Ireland a wide berth

    or are these the Technological Solution, possibly even the UK Galileo replacement?

    Let's see how they cope with constant cloud.

    1. Groaning Ninny

      Re: I expect these to give the border with Ireland a wide berth

      The cloud won' affect their power (as they'll be waaay above the vast majority of cloud).

      Now, would cloud be an issue for what they're looking at? Possibly, although the beauty of these is that unlike a satellite it'll be easier to tell it to look in particular areas and perhaps avoid the cloud. Note an earlier poster wondered if these could be desired to help the OS map non-UK locations, some of which might be a little less occluded.

  12. Flakk Silver badge

    In addition to mapping, the platform has uses for "urbanisation, land management, environmental change and mapping to support emergency response in the case of natural disasters", according to Neil Ackroyd, co-founder of the company.

    And surveillance of the civil population. Don't forget about that.

    1. the Jim bloke Bronze badge
      Windows

      Thought the yoof of today werent up to being civil?

      so is this just for spying on old farts?

    2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      "And surveillance of the civil population."

      As their spokesman said, it's hard to identify people by the tops of their heads.

  13. Stevie Silver badge

    Bah!

    Would be more awesome if it had a Cox .010 TD with brushless motor (doubles as starter/genny ) for APU.

  14. Peter Christy

    Gatwick?

    Didn't take off from anywhere near Gatwick, did it?

  15. Jimmy2Cows
    Headmaster

    Ummm... refueling...?

    Doesn't use "fuel" so cannot "refuel". Presumably means "needing its batteries replaced" given the 100-cycle degradation.

    Wish people would stop dumbing things down to the point the meaning changes competely.

  16. JDX Gold badge

    Battery life

    I'm curious how the batteries work at this altitude given the extremely low temperature. Do they use fundamentally different battery tech or are there workarounds that your smartphone doesn't have?

    1. Ozzard

      Re: Battery life

      I suspect that if you put the batteries inside the wing sections in a long sausage surrounded by a low-density foam, they'd be pretty well insulated - perhaps enough that you wouldn't need to run extra heater wires near them, given that they'll emit heat both when charging and when discharging. No idea whether that's how it's done, but it looks like the kind of design where you can take advantage of available space.

  17. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken Silver badge
    Pint

    You know, I'd love to read Lester Haines' take on this. Alas...

    (A pint or two to raise on absent friends.)

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