First Flight by Unmanned Aircraft

Robot Plane Crosses Atlantic

By Jennifer Haupt

August 21, 1998

After 2,000 miles, 26 hours, and two gallons of gas, a 29-pound airplane dubbed Laima flopped down in a pasture on a Scottish island this morning, becoming the first unmanned aircraft to successfully cross the Atlantic Ocean.

“I am pleased to report that an Aerosonde has just landed on the west coast of Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland,” Greg Holland, a member of the team that built the aircraft, announced this morning. “There is a lot left to do, but there is no longer any doubt that the concept works.”

Laima, named after the Latvian goddess of good luck, was the third attempt at the transatlantic flight. The researchers launched two of the planes took Monday morning, headed for Scotland, but one crashed minutes after takeoff. The other never arrived.

A fourth plane, Millionaire, launched several hours behind Laima, has still not arrived and is now overdue.

The success of the flight encouraged researchers in their plans to use the unmanned aircraft—collectively known as Aerosondes—for weather reconnaissance as early as next year.

A Closer Eye on Weather

With the advent of global positioning satellites and advanced computers, a new breed of lightweight robotic plane can navigate over thousands of miles. One of the primary intended uses of the Aerosonde is weather reconnaissance.

“We won’t change the way that weather forecasting is done,” says Tad McGeer, president of Insitu, an aerospace research and development firm in Bingen, Wash., involved with the project. “We will simply allow the existing method to work better through use of more information. Hopefully, this will happen whether we succeed with the demonstration (across the Atlantic) or not, but if we do succeed it will happen sooner.”

The Australian Bureau of Meteorology, together with Insitu and an Australian company, began developing the design in 1994, which they called the Aerosonde. The plane’s sponsors include the weather services of Australia, Canada, Taiwan and the United States.

With a wingspan of 10 feet, the Aerosonde dubbed Laima took off at 6:29 a.m. local time Thursday from a runway at Bell Island Airport in St. John’s. It landed 26 hours later, at noon Scottish time.

Millionaire was launched about four hours later. It is now several hours overdue and presumed crashed.

Taking on Tiffany

The Aerosonde is equipped to measure wind speed and direction, temperature, humidity, air pressure and other meteorological data. Just last January, as tropical cyclone Tiffany was spinning its way down the Western Australian coast, an Aerosonde flew into the eye of the storm, gathering data to help meteorologists get a better understanding of the tropical storms.

“Until now, getting important weather information from within a cyclone was an occupation solely for the foolhardy,” Ian Macdonald, Australia’s parliamentary secretary to the minister for the environment, said in a recent speech endorsing Aerosondes for weather monitoring. “It involved daring aviators flying expensive aircraft as far into the storms as they could physically go.”

Aerosondes can endure severe weather conditions—thunderstorms, ice, strong winds—that would bring down larger planes. They cost less than $20,000, squeeze 1,200 miles from a gallon of fuel and should each last at least 20 flights.

Field trials for the Aerosonde have been carried out off the coasts of western Australia and Vancouver Island, and in the South China Sea. If successful, the transatlantic flight will be the longest ever achieved by a lightweight robotic plane over water.

Filling in the Weather Gaps

Weather in the middle latitudes generally moves from west to east. Consequently, forecasters on the East Coast can collect reams of data from weather stations across the continent. Forecasters on West Coast, however, have to base their predictions on spotty information from ships, satellites and commercial air traffic over the Pacific.

Another stumbling block to accurate weather predictions on both coasts is that there isn’t much equipment recording weather conditions between the surface and commercial airplanes traveling at 30,000 feet.

“Major mistakes in our forecasts, including unreported snowstorms and thundershowers, are usually due to missing data that prevent our models from accurately representing atmospheric conditions,” says Clifford Mass, professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington, which is also involved in the Aerosonde project.

“The bottom line of the transatlantic demonstration,” Mass says, “is that if successful, the Aerosonde could result in dramatically improved short- and long-term forecasts for the western U.S., and improve long-term forecasts for the eastern states.”

Mass predicts the damages prevented by an improved forecast for a single storm could more than pay for the costs of deploying Aerosondes up and down the West Coast.

Other Applications

Unmanned robotic aircraft have typically been designed at high cost for specialized military and government functions. However, several research institutions and corporations—including the University of Washington, Stanford University and Aurora Flight Sciences in Manassas, Va., are developing automated crafts that can be mass produced at relatively low cost.

Autonomous aircraft can carry out many data-gathering tasks, including land surveys, highway speed patrols, forest-fire lookouts and environmental monitoring, that now require larger piloted planes.

Before long, expendable robotic planes may be used to monitor hazardous waste sites and other potentially dangerous environmental areas, as well as take over tedious jobs such as counting livestock on large ranches and scanning electrical wires for possible damage. We may even see unmanned crafts replace blimps at sporting events, monitoring crowds and aiding in broadcasting events.

Canada to Scotland on 2 Gallons

Commercial jet liners cruise on autopilot from New York to London daily, but never before has an unmanned plane of any size crossed the Atlantic.

“It’s no great technological achievement for a large plane—piloted or not—with millions of dollars worth of sophisticated autopilot equipment to complete a transatlantic flight,” says Juris Vagners, a professor at University of Washington’s aeronautics and astronautics department. “But we’re doing it with a craft the size of a model plane on two gallons of gas.”

The U.S. Department of Defense’s unmanned reconnaissance aircraft, the Global Hawk, flew for the first time at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., last February, and there are plans for it to make a transatlantic flight next year.

“We’re attempting to fly the same mission as a $10 million unmanned craft with a 116-foot wingspan,” Vagners says. “If successful, not only will we beat the Department of Defense at being the first unmanned aircraft to cross the Atlantic, but we’ll have done it at a fraction of the cost.”

Copyright 1998