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Science & Technology
Flying High


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From Diana J. Choyce
May 01 - 07, 2000

96 hours non-stop flying

Anyone who has taken a long flight knows how difficult it can be. But imagine taking a flight that could last for months. Scientists at NASA are now working on a plane that flies higher than any before it, and it can remain in the air for months. It could open many fields of applications ranging from telecommunications to disaster relief.

"We look at this as the beginning of a new era, almost like the Wright Brothers in 1903. I am sure they were pretty excited and we are too," said John Del Frate, a National Aeronautics and Space Administration scientist in California. The plane, presently called Helios, will fly without a pilot. During the day it will be powered by solar cells. At night it will use a new storage energy system that includes fuel cells. NASA is hoping to initially have the plane fly for 96 hours non-stop. By 2203 it hopes to have the plane in air for up to six months. This plane has already been built by Monrovia, a partner of NASA, which is based in California. It has already made daytime flights using solar cells. They are looking for a breakthrough when the new energy storage system is developed. The driving force behind its development presently, is telecommunications applications.

"It won't replace other technologies wholesale but I think it will become a very large participant in telecommunications," said AeroVironment President and Chief Executive Officer Timothy Conver. General Motors Corp. owns less than a 15 percent stake in privately held AeroVironment. Conver said the planes could be based above major urban population centers such as Los Angeles and each plane could provide the equivalent of around 2,000 high-speed lines for Internet users in an area about 40 miles (65 km) in diameter. He said the cost per bit of data is likely to be about 1/20 that of a low-orbit satellite and he also expected it to be cheaper than terrestrial systems. "There is a huge, compelling economic case because there is so much more capacity in one area (when compared with a low-orbit satellite)," he said. The plane now costs "a few million bucks" to build, Conver said, but that should come down over time as technological advances and economies of scale drive down key costs, including its 66,000 solar energy cells. The prototype has a wingspan of 250 feet (76 meters), which is longer than a Boeing 747, but it weighs less than 2,000 pounds (900 kg). It takes off at less than 30 miles (50 km) per hour and at altitude flies at less than 100 mph (160 kph). Conver said prototypes have flown at 80,000 feet (24,380 meters), higher than any other propeller aircraft, and there are plans for them to fly at more than 100,000 feet (30,480 meters), believed to be higher than any plane has flown. All records now are held by Lockheed's SR71 spy plane, but information related to that aircraft remains classified. For technological reasons the plane will probably operate best at around 65,000 feet (19,810 meters), Conver said.

Richard Swanson, President and Chief Executive Officer of Sunnyvale, California-based SunPower Corp., which makes the plane's solar energy cells, said the transparency of the wings allows the cells not only to absorb sunlight from above but also to turn reflections off clouds below into power. Del Frate said NASA had been interested for some time in the development of a plane with "ultra-long" flight duration that could carry its scientific instruments. He said the new plane could fly year-round in 2003 or 2004 around the equator, with the line moving gradually north as technological advances are made, possibly to the southern United States in 2005 and a city such as New York between 2008 and 2010. Shorter days and a lower sun angle during the winter may initially limit its year-round ability to fly for extended periods farther north, he added.

Del Frate is a project manager for NASA's Environmental Research Aircraft Sensor Technology (ERAST) and is based at the Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force base in the southern California desert. He said the plane would of great use in disaster relief, noting that if a major earthquake, for example, were to hit southern California it could not only provide imagery of the damage but also serve as a telecommunications platform, restoring lost communications within 24 hours. "Disaster organizations could distribute thousands of cell phones. It (the plane) would provide a ready-to-plug-up cell phone system," he said. This sounds like a very exciting and worthwhile concept. But this writer would prefer a much shorter flight. However, in a disaster situation, it would be nice to know that help is just a few miles...up.