Charles Lindbergh would have loved it. A tiny company in the Pacific Northwest hopes within the next few weeks to become the first to fly an unpiloted aircraft across the Atlantic Ocean.
With a one-cylinder engine and a wingspan of only 10 feet, the Insitu Group’s Aerosonde could sit atop a dining table. But if it succeeds, it will wing its way into the history books, and possibly into a significant role in everything from weather forecasting to pipeline monitoring.
Meanwhile, an aerospace giant with deep roots in Atlantic crossings is toying with a similar plan. Teledyne Ryan Aeronautical of San Diego, the company that built the Spirit of St. Louis for Lindbergh, has been asked to fly its sophisticated Global Hawk unmanned airplane all the way from California to France for the Paris Air Show next June.
Company executives admit they find the idea a bit alluring, but several hurdles would have to be overcome.
So it could become a David and Goliath showdown: a bunch of upstarts trying to steal the thunder from a well-heeled giant that is the world leader in pilotless aircraft. Ryan’s Global Hawk is being developed for the Defense Department at a cost of $330 million, including the first six aircraft. Production models are expected to run about $10 million each. The Aerosonde rolls off the assembly line at around $15,000 a copy.
About the only thing they have in common is that neither has a pilot aboard.
It may all sound like just a little fun and games, but the stakes are very real. For years now, some sectors of the aerospace industry have pushed for greater acceptance of pilotless aircraft. A flight across the Atlantic could help boost public confidence in the reliability and safety of unmanned aircraft.
The Department of Defense has been the prime driver behind the development of unmanned air vehicles, or UAVs as they are called, because of the obvious advantage of being able to take the pilot out of the equation in dangerous situations, such as towing aerial targets. But in recent years there has been a growing interest by the civilian sector.
Inexpensive pilotless craft could be used for everything from monitoring crops, pipelines or aqueducts, to damage assessment following a natural disaster, such as a flood or an earthquake. And Juris Vagners, professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the University of Washington and a participant in the Aerosonde project, believes airplanes like the Aerosonde could be immensely valuable for weather reconnaissance.
Back in the 1920s Lindbergh turned to Ryan because he believed a simple aircraft with one engine and one person aboard had a better chance of making it across the Atlantic than the more sophisticated planes that were coming on line at the time.
And simplicity could favor the Aerosonde over its competitor. Ryan would need approval by all kinds of federal and international agencies to fly across the United States and into Europe. The Insitu Group of Bingen, Wash., which built the Aerosonde and is now in partnership with the University of Washington, plans to use up to three planes to try and make the crossing. Insitu had hoped to make the first attempt within a few days, but the Irish government has withdrawn approval of the flight until safety issues are better addressed, delaying the attempt for several weeks.
Ryan executives say the Global Hawk has flown several times, and they are confident it could take off from California, fly across the continent at 65,000 feet (far above air traffic) and land on a dime on an airstrip in Paris, with no one aboard.
The Aerosonde’s creators don’t seem quite so confident.
“The risk of failure is significant,” said Tad McGeer, president of the Insitu Group. “But it’s more likely to make it than not.”
“I would hate to think that a little company could steal our thunder,” said Ryan spokesman Mark Day. “But I don’t want to discourage them.”
And Vagners relishes the idea: “It’s a little risky, but it would be a lot of fun to beat Teledyne.”
The arguments in favor of the Global Hawk and the Aerosonde are as different as the two planes. The Aerosonde is designed to make low-level flights over the ocean to collect weather data and thus improve forecasts. It is cheap, can fly for hours on a gallon of gas, and can be used over and over.
The Global Hawk is an aerial reconnaissance vehicle capable of carrying sophisticated cameras that will allow field commanders to survey large areas and get real-time images without endangering the life of a pilot. It is expected to be able to fly 3,000 miles to an area of interest, and then fly over the area for 24 hours before returning to base.
The Aerosonde looks a little like it was built in someone’s backyard, which isn’t too far from the truth. About 30 have been built by the Insitu Group, and they have been tested extensively off Australia.
It weighs only about 29 pounds, and is powered by a small engine in a pusher configuration.
“Primitive,” is the way McGeer describes its one-lung power plant.
But there is nothing primitive about its robotics. The Aerosonde uses the Global Positioning System for guidance, and a standard autopilot to maintain altitude. If it is blown too far off course, the system will shut down and the plane will crash into the ocean.
McGeer plans to launch two planes from Newfoundland the first day in August that the weather permits. The plane is not powerful enough to fly into the wind, so an easterly breeze would be nice. About 50 miles offshore, he will lose contact.
The University of Washington’s Vagners will be waiting in County Mayo, Ireland. If neither plane shows up within about 36 hours, Vagner will know the mission failed, and the third plane will be launched.
If that one doesn’t make it, Ryan--which didn’t seek this confrontation--will have the field to itself. Outsiders, including some in the military and others with the Paris Air Show, proposed the flight. Given its company history, Ryan officials found the request appealing.
But the Global Hawk will have to fly through commercial airspace to reach its cruising altitude of 65,000 feet, and then it will have to reenter over Europe, and that would require cooperation with aviation officials on both sides of the Atlantic.
The Global Hawk, as well as the Aerosonde, are guided during takeoff and landing by ground controllers. The Hawk can use any long airstrip, but the Aerosonde takes off from the top of a car traveling at 50 mph and lands on its belly.
And that gives rise to this question: Just how comfortable are people likely to be with planes flying overhead and no one on board?
Vagners says that is a legitimate concern, but no one should worry about the Aerosonde. It is designed to operate over the ocean, below the altitude used by commercial aircraft and beyond the routes flown by civilian pilots.
“Once you are well over the Atlantic, or the Pacific, there isn’t going to be any aircraft in the area,” he said.
There’s some risk involved, especially to the fledgling company’s reputation, but as Vagners points out, “the only way to find out is to try it. It’s an adventure.”
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The Race to be First
Two vastly different companies, using two very different aircraft, are vying to be the first to send an unpiloted airplane across the Atlantic Ocean. If either project succeeds, it could lead to broader commercial applications for pilotless planes such as weather-data collection and crop monitoring.
Maker: Teledyne Ryan Aeronautical of San Diego
Cost: About $10 million each
Wingspan: 116 feet
Weight: 25,600 pounds
Cruising altitude: up to 65,000 feet
Range: 13,000 miles
Purpose: The Global Hawk is designed as a military aerial reconnaissance vehicle capable of carrying sophisticated cameras. It will allow field commanders to survey large areas and get real-time images.
Maker: Insitu Group of Bingen, Wash.
Cost: About $15,000 each
Wingspan: 10 feet
Weight: 29 pounds
Cruising altitude: 5,000 to 15,000 feet
Range: 1,250 miles
Purpose: The Aerosonde is designed to make low-level flights over the ocean to collect weather data for improved forecasts.
Source: The companies