Researchers at the University of Washington and The Insitu Group this week announced plans to attempt the first unmanned flight across the Pacific Ocean.
The transpacific attempt, a journey of more than two days, will likely be flown next summer or fall by the team’s newest minature robotic airplane, an autonomously flying craft small enough to fit inside a minivan. The attempt follows the UW and Insitu’s historic first flight across the Atlantic Ocean with a robotic aircraft in 1998.
“This is the next logical step,” said Juris Vagners, professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the UW. “This will demonstrate truly long-range performance for miniature robotic aircraft, and readiness to enter service in offshore weather reconnaissance and other applications.”
The announcement was made at the Kirsten Wind Tunnel on the UW campus, where the airframe for Insitu’s new “Seascan” aircraft was undergoing tests. Seascan is similar in size to the old “Aerosonde” line that made the transatlantic crossing, weighing in at 29 pounds. But it’s much different in appearance. The Seascan has a 4.5-foot fuselage, a 10-foot wingspan and no tail.
“It looks like a tube with wings,” said Tad McGeer, president of Insitu, a small firm located in Bingen, Wash., which has been working with UW on robotic aircraft for several years. “It is designed especially for ship-based reconnaissance. It has to be practical for shipboard launch and retrieval, and while onboard it must fold easily into a box. That drives the aerodynamic design.”
Seascan will offer new capability for commercial fishermen, oceanographers, the military and others looking for an economical way to find out what’s going on in the ocean around them.
Seascan also features new technology that will significantly boost performance over the Aerosonde. “We can make a Seascan version capable of flying much farther than our transatlantic demonstrator,” McGeer said. “We can fly across the Pacific.”
In the 1998 demonstration, an Aerosonde flew 2,000 miles from Newfoundland to Scotland in 26 hours 45 minutes on 1.5 gallons of fuel. The Pacific crossing will begin in Asia and end in Washington state, skirting south of the Aleutian Islands, a distance of approximately 5,000 miles. The flight will take more than two days.
The aircraft are autonomous in flight, navigating via a GPS system. The user simply specifies waypoint coordinates, airspeeds and altitudes, and then launches the aircraft. During the Atlantic flight, researchers lost contact with the Aerosonde after it flew over the horizon and had to wait, in suspense, until re-establishing contact near Scotland. During the Pacific crossing the group plans to keep tabs on progress via satellite.
The ability to fly such long distances opens the door to better weather prediction. Miniature robotic aircraft can provide an inexpensive method of gathering meteorological data on a large scale.
“We have good data over land, but not over oceans because there is no lower altitude instrumentation there, only satellite and airliner measurements” Vagners said. “You could use manned aircraft, or you could deploy a ship with weather balloons, but that’s prohibitively expensive. Using miniature robotic aircraft will be a very affordable alternative.”
Researchers and students at the UW and Insitu are ramping up engineering work. Trials are expected to begin in spring, with the transpacific attempt in summer or early fall.
For more information, contact Vagners at (206) 543-7937 or www.aa.washington.edu/research/aerosonde/pacx/index.html and additional information about Seascan is at www.insitugroup.com/Seascan.html.