There are only few areas on our planet that still resist the permanent presence of humans and their remote sensing ambassadors. Part of Earth’s atmosphere – stratosphere – is one of them. Starting at altitude of 7 km at the poles, extending to 50 km at the equator, stratosphere offers an unique environment. With solar radiation reaching as much as 140 % of the ground levels at the equator, enough density to provide lift and relatively stable wind streams, stratosphere is likely to become an important airspace of the 21st century.
Although expandable short term stratospheric ballooning have been helping to obtain important scientific measurements for over a hundred years by now, long- term stratospheric flights represent a great opportunity for mankind just waiting to be seized. In the past, the duration of stratospheric flights was limited by the available aviation technology.
However, miniaturisation in electronics, advancement in development of lightweight materials, software algorithms, solar energy generation and storage and state of the art design tools allow for a construction of lightweight and reliable stratospheric vessels in the years to come.
Winner of the 2018 Galileo Masters Czech Republic Challenge
Stratosyst s.r.o. – the winner of the 2018 Galileo Masters Czech Republic Challenge – foresees the long term presence in the stratosphere as a vital part of the world‘s future economy, science, services and security. Stratospheric vehicles powered exclusively by energy of the sun will help to secure safe sea routes, optimise food farming or urban transportation, accurately forecast the weather, provide the internet connection to remote areas or observe the surface of the Earth as well as the depth of the universe. Reliably, reusable, affordably. They won’t be alone in these tasks – they will cooperate with satellites, ground stations and data providers.
Unprecedented stream of benefits worldwide
Satellite technology have provided human societies with unprecedented stream of benefits worldwide – instant worldwide communication, navigation, terabytes of Earth observation data… and so on. Yet the further utilisation of satellites is under technological limitation. Despite the fast progress of a private space launch companies, shared rides etc., the cost of the orbital launch remains beyond the reach for many companies and organisations. Moreover, the cost of the spacecraft itself and the associated test campaign is far more limiting. There are some solutions on the table – one of them learning from other industries e.g. automotive. Huge, mainly autonomous production lines, ejecting series of thousands and thousands identical satellites that will work as one system once launched. Such system is afterwards resistant to failure of a certain percent of the constellation. Thus, the cost of production and technological development is then pressed down, even though at the cost of multiplication of low earth orbit traffic and debris creation.
Layers of atmosphere
Another solution to the faster utilisation of satellite-like applications lies in the layers of atmosphere. So called High Altitude Pseudo Satellites (HAPS) can often provide the same services or act complementary to orbiting satellites. As indicated, HAPS will operate mainly in the stratosphere. It is anticipated that development cost as well as deployment time of such vehicles will be at least order of magnitude lower compared to the satellites orbiting around the Earth.
Stratosyst is about to serve in this environment as an integrator, operator and later also as a service provider using unmanned long-duration reusable vehicles. Unlike its competitors, Stratosyst is about to offer universal platforms that will be able to maintain its given position for unprecedented duration.
How it started
Before winning the Galileo Masters Czech Republik Challenge in 2018, the idea of Stratosyst was laid down for the first time by Jiří Pavlík. As an expert on off-grid energy systems, energy generation and energy storage he thought of utilising such technology for aerospace sector. Impressed by a results of infrared astronomy in stratosphere using ballooning and planes, he was simultaneously disappointed by a limitation of these measurements. NASA’s study from The Keck Institute “Airships – A New Horizon for Science” showed him that such a system will find use not only in scientific but also commercial applications.
His thought, hat if a huge floating structure is be constructed and then flown in the stratosphere, powered by solar energy with lithium-ion energy storage and equipped with infrared telescopeand by doing so, the heat of the lower atmosphere would be eliminated for infrared measurement and stationkeeping of the structure would ensure long term observation conditions. Jiří designed the first version of stratospheric platform for his presentation „Astronomy Observatory in Stratosphere“ at International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Adelaide, 2017.
Because of the positive feedback, he started to materialise his idea and went to Space Tech Expo 2017 in Bremen to talk to space industry leaders and innovators. The world is small and world of space business is even smaller – and that is how I, Richard Hynek, met Jiří at this expo. As a spacecraft structural engineer, I was captured by his idea. Before the expo closed its gates, our future cooperation was already planned. That was late 2017.
At that time, we were both members of a group of Czech space professionals and enthusiasts – Czech Space Network. And what is a better place to ask for a help with complex engineering and business project? And that is how our Stratosyst team expanded by four other important members at the beginning of 2018. Each and every one bringing his unique skills and experience to the project: Martin Farkač cares about legal aspects and international relations, Marek Novák builds the electronics that we need to control our platform with, Jan Snížek investigates the propelling system and Michal Kuneš is our advisor on the topics of business development.
Together, we progressed in both the technical design and the basics of business model. That is when we applied to Galileo Masters 2018 competition in which we won the Czech Republic Challenge with our „Infrared Observatory in Stratosphere“ – one of many planned applications for Stratosyst platforms.
Winning the 2018 Galileo Masters Czech Republic Challenge helped us to boost our project in many areas, improved our presentation, solidified or technical baseline and helped us to set a real business case. Meetings during the Awards Ceremony in Marseille were valuable and winning the challenge is highly respectable by our potential business partners.
After attending this motivational event, we realised that there is time for actual hardware to be built and core principles and functions to be demonstrated. We dedicated the beginning of 2019 to building of a scaled technology demonstrator of our key subsystem – vertical lift. We partnered with Czech Aerospace Research Centre in Prague and succeeded in demonstrating the principle of the vertical lift at their workshop.
This demonstration helped us in the application of Stratosyst project to ESA Business Incubation Centre in Prague (ESA BIC Prague). Only the application process meant a huge leap for the whole project and our team. This work was rewarded with the acceptance of our application and 2019 is the beginning of a two year incubation period.
When we look back on the nearly two year-long history of the Stratosyst we realise what was actually accomplished:
- Definition of the idea and the vision of stratospheric aviation
- Formation of the founding team by attending the right event
- Evolution of the design
- Extension of the team by 4 other areas of excellence – covering all the important aspects of the first phases of the project
- Definition of the basic business plan and applications
- Success in Galileo Masters competition
- Partnering with Czech Aerospace Research Centre and Technology Center of Prague
- Membership of HAPS Near Space Group
- Presentation at HAPS4ESA 2019 conference
- Attendance at Higher Airspace symposium in Brussels
- The first negotiations with investors
- Acceptance for ESA BIC Prague
- Acceptance of presentation at the 70th International Astronautical Congress in Washington, DC
How to proceed
The plan is that in the upcoming two years, the low altitude flight demonstrator will be developed and launched to market. In the case of Stratosyst, demonstrator will be a scaled donut-shaped atmospheric vehicle, approximately 6 meters in diameter that will be able to operate up to three kilometers above the sea level. Navigating to and stationkeeping above the given area thanks to precise global navigationsatellite system, mainly European Galileo. Not only that demonstrator will prove the technologies needed for later stratospheric flights, it will also generate the first profit by providing rapidly deployable solution for following applications:
- Emergency communication relays
- Emergency search from higher altitudes
- Long term non-stop surveillance of large areas
- Long-term meteorology measurements
- Element of the smart city infrastructure
It will be an exciting moment when we lift-off for the first time. But safety is the priority for all aviation. That is why we want to actively cooperate on the formation of the rules and laws for this future high altitude drone segment. We already have a voice in the HAPS Near Space Group and we are negotiating the terms of air operations with Czech Ministry of Transport.
Demonstrator will open the sky for us. However, to fully exploit the possibilities of high altitude pseudo satellites we need to think bigger and fly higher. Possibilities of the vehicle that can stationkeep above the given area in the altitudes around 20 kilometers are nearly limitless. We see university students and small agile companies designing experiments for near space conditions of the stratosphere, rapidly launching them with Stratosyst and then landing them safely back with the precious results.
We see the Earth observing scientific instruments helping to understand our fragile ecosystem and its changes. We see the telecommunication companies delivering the temporary emergency reception to remote or damaged areas. We plan to accommodate visual and other surveillance instruments to secure the maritime routes and help with the search in the case of sea accidents, when every hour counts. We listen to astronomers who would like to have an opportunity of stationary observatory above the thick layers of the atmosphere. We see the meteorology scientists having an instant data access to measurement stations put in the various altitudes around the country or globe. And the most of all – we are looking forward to applications that nobody even described yet. Stratosyst platforms will be something like lightweight trucks of the stratosphere. Safely delivering the cargo where it is needed for a long time – ultimately a year – and bringing it back to the ground.
About the author:
Richard Hynek is an engineer and industrial designer. He started his professional space journey at European Space Agency as a Young Graduate Trainee structural engineer. Since 2015, he has been working in Czech space industry. In 2017 he was one of the founders of Stratosyst project which officially turned into company in 2019.