Hardware

Radical thinks the time has come for solar-powered, high-altitude autonomous aircraft

Comment

solar-powered drone
Image Credits: Radical

Though many eyes are on space as orbit develops into a thriving business ecosystem, Radical is keeping things a little closer to the ground — but not too close. Its high-altitude, solar-powered aircraft aim to succeed where Facebook’s infamous Aquila failed by refining the tech and embracing more markets.

It’s hard to believe that Facebook’s ambitious plan to use solar-powered aircraft to provide internet access in far-flung locations got its start a decade ago. But though those dreams came crashing down when the project was scuttled, the concept remained intact.

Ultra-lightweight aircraft in the stratosphere can, in theory, stay aloft almost indefinitely by powering their propellers via solar panels. Load it up with sensors, telecommunications gear or anything else and you’ve got a versatile, mobile asset that isn’t hindered by orbital mechanics or chaotic weather patterns.

Radical CEO James Thomas suggested that the tech just wasn’t ready before now.

“There’s been interest in these high-alt, high-end aircraft for a long time,” he told TechCrunch in an interview. “It’s not a new idea, but in the past few years a lot of the supporting technologies have really matured — batteries, solar, even advanced compute. Look at where we’re at with battery tech now: we’re almost at 2x [of Aquila’s]. That puts us in a really strong position.”

The Seattle-based startup has raised a $4.5 million seed round to take it from a small-scale demonstrator aircraft, which it successfully flew for 24 hours straight recently, to a full-scale one. This full-size craft would have a wingspan around 100 feet, but weigh “as much as a person,” which I took to mean 100-200 pounds.

Radical’s founders hold the sub-scale demonstrator aircraft. Image Credits: Radical
Image Credits: Radical

Putting the full-scale aircraft into the stratosphere is Radical’s primary goal, but that hasn’t stopped them from scouting out possible use cases.

“We think of what we’re developing as a platform for persistent airborne infrastructure,” he said, but for use cases where an orbital asset isn’t practical. For instance, orbital imagery of an area at risk of wildfires might come in once an hour — far too slow for a rapid response. But a high-altitude aircraft could provide 24/7 live monitoring for weeks straight, or even change its location to track new threats.

For telecommunications, although Starlink is rapidly emerging as the go-to solution for connectivity in remote areas, it has important limits, like the need for precision ground infrastructure. There are plenty of cases where a flying 5G station is a better bet (though you still need to work out the backhaul).

Radical was one of my picks from Y Combinator’s early 2023 batch, and I wrote at the time:

I always thought the idea was compelling but had yet to find its business model. Connectivity anywhere may be a huge new differentiator for mobile networks, and I bet satellites will be useful but expensive and congested. Why not a giant glider? It’s equally weird, but I appreciate the ambition.

Apparently I was correct!

One nice advantage of working in the stratosphere, Thomas pointed out, is that you have a significantly reduced regulatory load. Up above the closely monitored urban and commercial airspaces, it’s much simpler to operate and faster to get approvals.

Radical isn’t the only company looking into this; the AALTO project at Airbus aims to fill a similar gap in telecoms coverage, and Skydweller’s much larger platform (600 kilograms of batteries alone) is looking to enter a surveillance and intelligence role with a Palantir partnership.

Thomas said their advantage comes from a close relationship with the companies they work with, who “really want to be hands on with the system.” Not a one-size-fits-all platform, then, but also not purely bespoke — it depends on the customer (though he called them customers, they aren’t the paying type yet; the company is pre-revenue).

For now the goal is to get into the air within the next 12 months, proving the full-size craft can fly and putting them in a position to, presumably, start accepting money.

The seed round was led by Scout Ventures, with additional funding from investors including Inflection and Y Combinator.

More TechCrunch

Zen Educate, an online marketplace that connects schools with teachers, has raised $37 million in a Series B round of funding. The raise comes amid a growing teacher shortage crisis…

Zen Educate raises $37M and acquires Aquinas Education as it tries to address the teacher shortage

“When I heard the released demo, I was shocked, angered and in disbelief that Mr. Altman would pursue a voice that sounded so eerily similar to mine.”

Scarlett Johansson says that OpenAI approached her to use her voice

A new self-driving truck — manufactured by Volvo and loaded with autonomous vehicle tech developed by Aurora Innovation — could be on public highways as early as this summer.  The…

Aurora and Volvo unveil self-driving truck designed for a driverless future

The European venture capital firm raised its fourth fund as fund as climate tech “comes of age.”

ETF Partners raises €284M for climate startups that will be effective quickly — not 20 years down the road

Copilot, Microsoft’s brand of generative AI, will soon be far more deeply integrated into the Windows 11 experience.

Microsoft wants to make Windows an AI operating system, launches Copilot+ PCs

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch Space. For those who haven’t heard, the first crewed launch of Boeing’s Starliner capsule has been pushed back yet again to no earlier than…

TechCrunch Space: Star(side)liner

When I attended Automate in Chicago a few weeks back, multiple people thanked me for TechCrunch’s semi-regular robotics job report. It’s always edifying to get that feedback in person. While…

These 81 robotics companies are hiring

The top vehicle safety regulator in the U.S. has launched a formal probe into an April crash involving the all-electric VinFast VF8 SUV that claimed the lives of a family…

VinFast crash that killed family of four now under federal investigation

When putting a video portal in a public park in the middle of New York City, some inappropriate behavior will likely occur. The Portal, the vision of Lithuanian artist and…

NYC-Dublin real-time video portal reopens with some fixes to prevent inappropriate behavior

Longtime New York-based seed investor, Contour Venture Partners, is making progress on its latest flagship fund after lowering its target. The firm closed on $42 million, raised from 64 backers,…

Contour Venture Partners, an early investor in Datadog and Movable Ink, lowers the target for its fifth fund

Meta’s Oversight Board has now extended its scope to include the company’s newest platform, Instagram Threads, and has begun hearing cases from Threads.

Meta’s Oversight Board takes its first Threads case

The company says it’s refocusing and prioritizing fewer initiatives that will have the biggest impact on customers and add value to the business.

SeekOut, a recruiting startup last valued at $1.2 billion, lays off 30% of its workforce

The U.K.’s self-proclaimed “world-leading” regulations for self-driving cars are now official, after the Automated Vehicles (AV) Act received royal assent — the final rubber stamp any legislation must go through…

UK’s autonomous vehicle legislation becomes law, paving the way for first driverless cars by 2026

ChatGPT, OpenAI’s text-generating AI chatbot, has taken the world by storm. What started as a tool to hyper-charge productivity through writing essays and code with short text prompts has evolved…

ChatGPT: Everything you need to know about the AI-powered chatbot

SoLo Funds CEO Travis Holoway: “Regulators seem driven by press releases when they should be motivated by true consumer protection and empowering equitable solutions.”

Fintech lender SoLo Funds is being sued again by the government over its lending practices

Hard tech startups generate a lot of buzz, but there’s a growing cohort of companies building digital tools squarely focused on making hard tech development faster, more efficient and —…

Rollup wants to be the hardware engineer’s workhorse

TechCrunch Disrupt 2024 is not just about groundbreaking innovations, insightful panels, and visionary speakers — it’s also about listening to YOU, the audience, and what you feel is top of…

Disrupt Audience Choice vote closes Friday

Google says the new SDK would help Google expand on its core mission of connecting the right audience to the right content at the right time.

Google is launching a new Android feature to drive users back into their installed apps

Jolla has taken the official wraps off the first version of its personal server-based AI assistant in the making. The reborn startup is building a privacy-focused AI device — aka…

Jolla debuts privacy-focused AI hardware

The ChatGPT mobile app’s net revenue first jumped 22% on the day of the GPT-4o launch and continued to grow in the following days.

ChatGPT’s mobile app revenue saw its biggest spike yet following GPT-4o launch

Dating app maker Bumble has acquired Geneva, an online platform built around forming real-world groups and clubs. The company said that the deal is designed to help it expand its…

Bumble buys community building app Geneva to expand further into friendships

CyberArk — one of the army of larger security companies founded out of Israel — is acquiring Venafi, a specialist in machine identity, for $1.54 billion. 

CyberArk snaps up Venafi for $1.54B to ramp up in machine-to-machine security

Founder-market fit is one of the most crucial factors in a startup’s success, and operators (someone involved in the day-to-day operations of a startup) turned founders have an almost unfair advantage…

OpenseedVC, which backs operators in Africa and Europe starting their companies, reaches first close of $10M fund

A Singapore High Court has effectively approved Pine Labs’ request to shift its operations to India.

Pine Labs gets Singapore court approval to shift base to India

The AI Safety Institute, a U.K. body that aims to assess and address risks in AI platforms, has said it will open a second location in San Francisco. 

UK opens office in San Francisco to tackle AI risk

Companies are always looking for an edge, and searching for ways to encourage their employees to innovate. One way to do that is by running an internal hackathon around a…

Why companies are turning to internal hackathons

Featured Article

I’m rooting for Melinda French Gates to fix tech’s broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

Women in tech still face a shocking level of mistreatment at work. Melinda French Gates is one of the few working to change that.

2 days ago
I’m rooting for Melinda French Gates to fix tech’s  broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

Blue Origin has successfully completed its NS-25 mission, resuming crewed flights for the first time in nearly two years. The mission brought six tourist crew members to the edge of…

Blue Origin successfully launches its first crewed mission since 2022

Creative Artists Agency (CAA), one of the top entertainment and sports talent agencies, is hoping to be at the forefront of AI protection services for celebrities in Hollywood. With many…

Hollywood agency CAA aims to help stars manage their own AI likenesses

Expedia says Rathi Murthy and Sreenivas Rachamadugu, respectively its CTO and senior vice president of core services product & engineering, are no longer employed at the travel booking company. In…

Expedia says two execs dismissed after ‘violation of company policy’