Christchurch company developing solar powered aircraft with NASA

Kea Aerospace's solar-powered, remotely piloted stratospheric aircraft will fly continuously for...
Kea Aerospace's solar-powered, remotely piloted stratospheric aircraft will fly continuously for months to collect aerial imagery. Image:
Scientists from a Christchurch-based aerospace company have been awarded funding to develop a high-altitude, solar-powered aircraft with NASA.

Technology and Space Minister Judith Collins said 12 projects from across NZ will receive up to $75,000 each from the government’s catalyst fund for the six-month Earth observation studies in partnership with NASA.

Kea Aerospace's research with NASA aims to improve the monitoring of coastal water quality.

It is currently flight-testing several prototype aircraft in New Zealand before building its first full-size Kea Atmos, which will operate as a high altitude platform station and high altitude long endurance aircraft.

Founded in 2018 in Christchurch, Kea Aerospace will work with NASA to develop a new tool for coastal management through an advanced data feed from a stratospheric aircraft.

"The ability to effectively monitor and realise impact on coasts is hampered by the sheer length and lack of resources to cover it," the Kea Aerospace project summary states.

"This work will aim to develop a novel tool to assist coastal management decisions by providing an advanced data stream from a stratospheric aircraft.

"The aircraft will operate for weeks at a time above 60,000 ft with camera systems capable of inferring critical information about the coast and relaying it to scientists and decision makers."

Collins said the 12 research projects cover a wide range of feasibility studies, including environmental monitoring, natural hazards and biodiversity.

The teams were chosen from proposals received under the joint research initiative with NASA that MBIE announced in September 2023.

Collins praised the quality of the selected projects, which she saw as having “the potential for excellent collaborative science with high relevance to both New Zealand and NASA.”

Another project to get funding will be under taken by Lincoln Agritech and NASA. It aims to track pasture quality through satellite imagery.

In January, New Zealand and Australia signed a collaboration agreement, making up to $6 million available over three years through the catalyst fund to support the research community.

-Additional reporting RNZ