ambience: Launch of a Unmanned Air Vehicle
We’re at an airfield witnessing the launch of a remote controlled plane that has a wingspan of about 14 feet. Its onboard computer is programmed to find pockets of warm air thermals, and ride them, like a soaring bird. I’m Jim Metzner, and this is the Pulse of the Planet.
“I think as a bird is circling in a thermal it’s constantly trying to estimate where that thermal is strongest and then fly in the strongest part of the thermal so it can climb the fastest. The bird can actually be going faster up than it is going forward. It can rise very quickly. Through simulation we can tune our own software to fly as good as we can in a thermal and maybe that will approximate what the birds are doing.”
Michael Allen is an aerospace engineer at Dryden Flight Research Center. He says that once the 15-pound airplane is launched by hand, it’s first flown by remote control and then the computer takes over.
“As the airplane is flying, it senses through pressures that it’s either climbing or speeding up. And it uses that to determine if it’s in a thermal or not. When it decides it’s in a thermal it will begin circling to try to stay in that thermal and rise. At that point the motor turns off and it’s then a glider. And it just rises on the air current. In one flight we actually climbed over 2,000 feet in one thermal and we demonstrated that we could soar for an hour. But the flight time was limited more by the batteries for the computers than anything. It’s likely that you could soar a lot longer.”
Engineers have big plans for soaring unmanned aircraft. We’ll hear more in future programs. Pulse of the Planet is made possible by the National Science Foundation with additional support from NASA. I’m Jim Metzner.