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Updated 11:29 AM EDT, Tue, Jun 16, 2020

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Boeing’s New Solar-powered Airplane is an ‘Atmospheric Satellite’

It's a satellite, believe it or not

(Photo : The Boeing Company) Drawing of Boeing's solar powered airplane

The Boeing Company that's built some of the world's largest airplanes has filed a patent to build its first solar-powered airplane. But it's not really an airplane.

Based on the illustration on its application with the U.S. Patents and Trademark Office (USPTO), this new Boeing machine looks like a piece of paper folded up at both ends -- and nothing like the aerial behemoths Boeing is famous for.

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But starting small is no disgrace for a giant like Boeing that has precious little experience designing and flying solar-powered aircraft.

Boeing's patent application for a "Solar Powered Airplane" shows a huge wing with 10 propellers. The wing ends in two large winglets. There's no cockpit and no pilot. Instead, the solar plane will be controlled remotely from the ground.

You can read through Boeing's patent application here.

Boeing's plane is designed with a mass of solar panels on its upper side to store as much solar energy as possible. And to capture even more solar energy, the large winglets at each end of the wing will absorb sunlight even when the Sun is low on the horizon. The winglets should also allow the plane to maintain a stable flight path and reach high altitudes.

Boeing's focus on the wing as a gigantic solar energy collector will allow the aircraft to store enough energy during the day to sustain night flights.

Incredibly, Boeing claims this advantage means its solar-powered plane might never need to land. That's a feat no solar-powered plane has ever accomplished before.

The practical purpose of this plane isn't to prove solar-powered planes are practical. That's a given.

What Boeing wants is a machine capable of perpetual, stable, high-altitude flight that will serve as a communications system relaying signals long distances across the globe, much like satellites do. The aircraft is really an "atmospheric satellite."

From an altitude above 60,000 feet, atmospheric satellites or atmosats are better suited for tasks such as border surveillance, maritime surveillance, anti-piracy operations, disaster response and agricultural observation. 

Atmosats can accomplish these missions more economically and with more versatility than low Earth orbit satellites.  

Boeing, by the way, is one of the world's leading builders of commercial and military satellites. Analysts said Boeing's solar-powered plane is likely an attempt to diversify its business and seize an edge in the booming solar plane market.

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