MicroAvionics Soars to New Heights with Sunlight-driven Flight

The mesosphere is a bit of a mystery. Roughly 30-50 miles above Earth’s surface, the air in this middle layer of the atmosphere is too thin for planes to fly and too thick for satellites to orbit—meaning it harbors untapped atmospheric and weather data that could be used for everything from predicting droughts to helping planes fly more efficiently.

MicroAvionics, a Greentown member and Harvard University spinout, is developing a “levitating” device that not only flies in the mesosphere, but is driven by sunlight rather than fuel. This isn’t typical solar power, however—MicroAvionics’ tech doesn’t involve batteries, a power supply, or moving parts. Its ultra-lightweight and thin platform runs solely on the sun.

“This is not photovoltaics; sunlight creates a temperature gradient between the top and the bottom of the platform, and that generates all the thrust,” explains Angela Feldhaus, one of the startup’s two co-founders.

MicroAvionics’ platform can float in the mesosphere indefinitely and carry equipment to collect atmospheric data, including wind speeds, pressure, temperature, and light intensity. Night doesn’t pose a problem for the device; when the sun sets, the platform gently falls a few kilometers, then bobs back up once sunlight returns.

A rendering of MicroAvionics’ device in flight.

“The sweet spot for this flight mechanism is in the mesosphere,” says MicroAvionics co-founder Ben Schafer. “This is a new propulsion mechanism, and since nothing else has been able to fly there sustainably, this will open up a new source of atmospheric data.” 

MicroAvionics’ climate impact is paramount for Feldhaus and Schafer, who met in a lab group at Harvard and share a mission of applying physics to climate action. In addition to gathering critical atmospheric and climate data, the startup’s sustainable platform can replace highly fuel-consuming hardware—including satellites and uncrewed aerial vehicles in other layers of the atmosphere that seek to remotely gather data on the mesosphere.

While the founders’ focus is these climate applications, their device represents an innovation for telecommunications and defense as well. The pre-seed startup is at technology readiness level (TRL) 3 and has received multiple bouts of non-dilutive funding, including from the New Mexico LEEP program and a Harvard Ingenuity Award.

MicroAvionics aims to test its tech in the atmosphere in the next 18-24 months, and is currently finishing its core R&D and increasing the size of its devices. The startup joined Greentown earlier this year, and its founders say they’ve found the programming for the startup community valuable.

“We’ve met a lot of people through the community events, and that’s been really helpful—talking to other founders and people who are ahead of us by a few years about their experiences has been really informative,” Feldhaus says.