UW Today

This is an archived article.

July 16, 1998

Trans-Atlantic crossing attempt by Aerosonde aims to prove viability of robotic planes for weather reconnaissance, make aviation history

Following Charles Lindbergh and the Concorde on the well-traveled, trans-Atlantic path to aviation history, researchers next month will attempt the first Atlantic Ocean crossing by an autonomous, civilian aircraft. If successful, the flights will carry robotic aircraft a step closer to their much-heralded promise as aviation workhorses of the next century as well as into the history books.

Researchers from autonomous aircraft manufacturer The Insitu Group of Bingen, Wash., and the University of Washington Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics are using the trans-Atlantic crossing to demonstrate that robotic airplanes in general, and Insitu’s Aerosonde in particular, will soon be ready for regular oceanic applications. Insitu and the UW are collaborating on a pilot project using autonomous aircraft to gather meteorological data over the Pacific Ocean that could significantly improve weather forecasting.

“One of the first things we have to do is prove that these planes can operate autonomously over the ocean as expected even though there currently is no over-the-horizon satellite data link. This means the aircraft will be in contact with ground stations only when near the launch and landing sites,” explains Juris Vagners, professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the UW. “A trans-Atlantic crossing allows us to test that capability over a much shorter distance than a trans-Pacific crossing while at the same time connecting with all of the other historic aviation firsts associated with trans-Atlantic crossings.”

The flights will take place during the first two weeks of August, with exact launch days to be dictated by favorable weather conditions. The aircraft will take off from Bell Island airport near St. John’s, Newfoundland, and land at Belmullet, Ireland. The flight will cover 1,860 miles and is expected to take about 24 hours. The planes will fly below conventional air traffic patterns, and special arrangements have been made with international aviation authorities to ensure the safety of other aircraft.

At 28 pounds and with a 10-foot wingspan, the Aerosonde is by far the smallest aircraft to attempt a trans-Atlantic crossing. However, in recent field trials off the coasts of western Australia and Canada, the Aerosonde has completed six flights of duration comparable to that of the Atlantic crossing, reports Insitu President Tad McGeer. Nevertheless, he adds, lingering engine problems and the inability to maintain constant contact with the aircraft increase the risk of losing an airplane.

“We plan to make an attempt with up to three aircraft if necessary, and flight experience indicates a high probability that at least one attempt will succeed, “McGeer says.

Under development since the early 1990s, the Aerosonde’s relatively low cost (targeted to be about $10,000) makes it affordable to accept a higher risk of plane loss for long-term, wide-scale environmental and meteorological monitoring activities that are not economically feasible using manned aircraft. In field tests, the Aerosonde has already proven effective in gathering remote meteorological data and in surveillance of severe storms. Other potential applications include geomagnetic surveys and monitoring of pipelines.

To effectively gather needed meteorological data over the Pacific Ocean, however, the Aerosonde’s range must be increased from its current maximum of about 1,250 miles to at least 3,000 miles. Forecasters ultimately hope autonomous aircraft can be launched from Hawaii or Alaska toward the West Coast, to gather data on wind speed and direction, temperature, humidity and air pressure from key spots over the Pacific. With only limited reports from surface ships and commercial aircraft, most of this data is missing from models forecasters use to predict weather. In worst case scenarios, says UW atmospheric scientist Cliff Mass, this can lead to late or missed forecasts of severe weather and tragic consequences.

Under a grant from the U.S. Office of Naval Research, UW engineers have teamed up with Insitu to improve the aerodynamic performance of the Areosonde and plan a Pacific Ocean meteorological weather reconnaissance program. Significant improvements have already been made to the plane, Vagners says, and initial trans-Pacific flights are expected as early as next summer.

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For more information, contact Vagners at (206) 543-7937 and vagners@aa.washington.edu, McGeer at (509) 493-8600 or insitu@gorge.net, or the UW Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics website at http://www.aa.washington.edu.