Final design of the Southern Hemisphere’s largest unmanned aircraft is revealed – Here’s what we know

According to Christchurch-based Kea Aerospace, the final design of New Zealand’s first stratospheric aircraft has been completed, and production is well underway.


Test flights at high altitudes will be conducted using the solar-powered “Kea Atmos Mk 1.” It weighs less than 40 kilogrammes and has a wingspan of 12.5 metres. The Kea Atmos is intended to fly test flights lasting up to 16 hours at a height of 65,000 feet (20 kilometres), which is almost twice that of commercial aircraft. Later versions will be created to operate constantly for several months at a time, according to Mark Rocket, CEO of Kea Aerospace.

Mark Rocket | Kea Aerospace

This is the first stratospheric aircraft built in New Zealand. We started construction in July, and we’re planning for the first stratospheric flight to take-off in early 2023. At that height it will be flying in extreme conditions – at about -65 degrees Celsius, and in less than 10% of the air density we have at sea level. The aircraft needs to be extremely light, but also be incredibly robust to operate successfully in those conditions

Mark Rocket says

The Kea Atmos

Kea Aerospace

The Kea Atmos (UAV) falls under the category of a fixed-wing High Altitude Platform (HAP) and a High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) airborne vehicle. It can also be referred to as an atmospheric satellite, an atmosat, a high altitude platform station, or a high altitude pseudo-satellite (HAPS).

Apparently, satellites, crewed aircraft, and drones are currently unable to fill the existing significant aerial data gap. It is currently expensive and challenging to gather high-quality, regular aerial data to detect changes in our surroundings. Only manned planes and satellites can access large-scale imaging, yet both have major limits.

Aerospace Christchurch

The incorporation of onboard components like the power supply and telemetry options significantly increases the Kea Atmos’s 10 kg cargo capacity. Thus, a 100-kilogramme payload for space hardware would be more appropriate for this weight. Furthermore, the aircraft’s 20x closer altitude offers further weight, size, and power advantages, such as in the case of payloads for sensor systems.

Only low- to medium-resolution images can be obtained from satellites over specified orbits and developing, launching, and operating satellites is extremely expensive. High-resolution aerial photographs are available from crewed aircraft, but they are also more expensive to operate and can only provide patchy coverage.

Representative | Kea Aerospace

The Kea Atmos will function in a “sweet spot” for high-resolution, low-cost aerial imaging in the stratosphere. According to the company, they will oversee every step of the process, including data collection, storage, analysis, and distribution.

Commercial aircraft normally fly between 33,000 and 42,000 feet (10 to 14 kilometres) in the air, however, the Kea Atmos flies at 65,000 feet, above the weather, strong winds, and jet stream (20 kilometres).

The Kea Atmos can take 20 times better images with a similar camera since satellites operate at least 20 times higher above the Earth’s surface at a distance of 400 kilometres. Furthermore, with significantly fewer technical difficulties, data flow to the ground is also considerably more effective.

Fostering Knowledge-Based Decision-Making

Massive data loads from the fleet of Kea Atmos aircraft are managed by a completely automated data pipeline, which also reduces resource waste, processing bottlenecks, and interference removal.

The company says:

  • Their antenna ground station network will guarantee successful real-time imagery transmission as well as effective mission operations.
  • After being post-processed and combined, the downlinked imagery will be uploaded to the business’ cloud infrastructure.
  • Data will then be added to the pipeline for data analysis and distribution at Kea Aerospace, where it will be distributed to stakeholders.

Evidently, the customers will have amazing, quick access to the business analytics they need to make faster, more informed decisions thanks to customised subscriptions to Kea’s data platform.

About Kea Aerospace

Kea Aerospace is on a mission to increase access to aerial images, led by industry visionaries with a history of world-leading innovation. It is an early member of the New Zealand Airspace Integration Trials programme operated by the Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment.

The company was established in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2018. They are the founding members of the industry organisation Aerospace Christchurch and a research partner with the University of Canterbury.

SOURCE: Kea Aerospace

COVER: Otago Daily Times