Above: HAPSMobile’s unmanned aerial system platform could launch from Hawaii to provide wireless connectivity on the ground. Image courtesy of HAPSMobile.

During the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has devastated Hawaii’s economy and demonstrated the disadvantages of relying too heavily on tourism. With lockdowns, travel restrictions and people foregoing vacation plans, visitor counts have plummeted along with state revenues. As a result, unemployment claims and business losses are at an all-time high and the state is now facing a nearly $2 billion budget shortfall. With lawmakers looking toward options for economic recovery, tourism will no doubt continue to be a key player in Hawaii’s future economy and growth. But the state is also at a crucial turning point when it can begin investing in the aerospace industry to reduce its dependency on visitors.

During the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has devastated Hawaii’s economy and demonstrated the disadvantages of relying too heavily on tourism. With lockdowns, travel restrictions and people foregoing vacation plans, visitor counts have plummeted along with state revenues. As a result, unemployment claims and business losses are at an all-time high and the state is now facing a nearly $2 billion budget shortfall. With lawmakers looking toward options for economic recovery, tourism will no doubt continue to be a key player in Hawaii’s future economy and growth. But the state is also at a crucial turning point when it can begin investing in the aerospace industry to reduce its dependency on visitors.

Developing aerospace could be a significant boon to Hawaii’s economic recovery and sustain economic growth for years to come. Though not all sectors of the aerospace industry are suitable for the islands, the geographic positioning and geological features of Hawaii present a unique opportunity to create the foundations of a high-tech aerospace industry that could bring significant revenue and high-paying jobs to the State.

Small Vehicle Launch

Artist’s concept of a small satellite launch facility. Credit: PSCH

Launch operations could include a small satellite launch facility to send payloads into low-Earth orbit. Rocket Lab has proven their Electron rocket as a reliable vehicle and are now leading the industry in small vehicle launches. The company is now working on a system to recover and reuse their first stage boosters. Virgin Orbit recently succeeded in launching a small rocket from the underbelly of a modified Boeing 747. This widens the range of launch options since the jet can take off from any airport without the need for a spaceport.

UAS Launch & Maintenance

HAPSMobile, a subsidiary of SoftBank and minority owned by AeroVironment, has developed a UAS called the High-Altitude Platform Station (HAPS)—a large, solar-powered drone designed for stratospheric communication platform systems flying around 60,000 to 75,000 feet. These unmanned drones can stay airborne for six to 12 months and provide cellular and Wi-Fi connectivity on the ground. The company is interested in building a launch point and maintenance base in Hawaii for a fleet of about 1,000 drones.

The project could bring in $7 to $10 million annually in research funds alone. A larger contribution to the State economy would be the creation of more than 200 high-tech jobs to maintain the fleet. The University of Hawaii is also looking at HAPS as a research platform to monitor fires, hurricanes, coral reef bleaching and other natural disasters.

One problem highlighted during the pandemic is the lack of widespread internet access across the State. Gov. Ige has made it a priority to provide internet access statewide to advance his concept of a “digital economy.” The HAPS platforms could deliver a statewide solution.

Space Tourism

Aerospace opportunities can also complement Hawaii’s existing tourism industry.
A Silicon Valley company specializing in space tourism is interested in building a flight operations and manufacturing center in Hawaii.

The company aims to provide paying customers with a view of Earth aboard a stratospheric balloon and space capsule with 100 flights per year. The project would create about 200 jobs will salaries averaging more than $60,000. The service would also support research and education related projects.

Virgin Galactic will also offer space flights for tourists. The company will launch its first suborbital flight out of Spaceport America in New Mexico and has expressed interest in launching from spaceports around the world. Hawaii could be one of these sites.

Conclusion

Recovering Hawaii’s economy will take planning, innovation and collaboration. It will be critical to incorporate aerospace opportunities. Aerospace is a rapid-growth industry that could generate high-paying employment outside of tourism. Hawaii has the chance to use its unique advantages—found nowhere else in the U.S.—to foster a viable and sustainable aerospace sector. Bold action is needed to pivot toward this new industry and reap the rewards. The time to act for aerospace development in Hawaii is now.