On Wednesday the 18th of November 2020, we were excited to attend the launch of Kea Aerospace, a Christchurch-based company, building the largest unmanned aircraft ever built in the Southern Hemisphere!

With a wingspan of 32-metres, the three electric motors will be powered by hundreds of solar cells to collect enough energy from the sun each day to enable it to fly continuously for months. It will fly at 65,000 ft (20 kilometres) in the stratosphere, an altitude twice as high as commercial passenger jets, where there is a relatively calm sweet spot above the jet streams and turbulent weather to enable smooth, sustained flight.

It is currently prohibitively expensive to get regularly updated, high-resolution data that covers large areas. The “Kea Atmos” will fly 20x closer to the Earth than satellites and enables the camera payload to acquire a much higher image quality, without the expense of operating in space.

Kea Aerospace’s CEO, Mark Rocket says, “Our solar-powered, zero-emission fleet of aircraft will be the perfect solution for smarter decision-making for businesses and organisations around the planet. We will acquire and analyse high quality aerial imagery data, to provide business intelligence direct to customers.”

Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel said people were often surprised to think of Canterbury as an aerospace hub. “They normally think of us around future food, fibre and agritech but the future of transport and aerospace actually fit as part of our pioneering history, and part of our future.”

Research, Science and Innovation Minister Megan Woods said New Zealand was the “ideal site” for developing an innovative unmanned aircraft sector. The magic happens when we link innovation with purpose. The technology they are developing here could be a game changer.”

Kea Aerospace has been accepted into New Zealand’s Airspace Integration Trials, a programme to establish New Zealand as location of choice for the safe development, testing and market validation of advanced unmanned aircraft. Dr Peter Crabtree, General Manager of Science, Innovation and International at the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, says: “The launch of the Kea Atmos is exciting for Kea Aerospace and for New Zealand. This project has the potential to revolutionise Earth imagery, providing access to higher quality data at a more affordable price point. We are pleased to have companies like Kea Aerospace join the Airspace Integration Trials Programme as we work towards our goal of realising the full potential for innovation within New Zealand’s regulatory regimes.”