Monday, July 18, 2011

New Scientist: Plane Sailing

Most of us have probably witnessed an airplane flying in the sky. We all remember the noise it makes, the gaseous fumes it leaves behind. What if a plane would quite simply glide, making no sound, releasing no smoke and using very little energy in the process. For this to work it must also be light as a feather so this means no passengers on board or any other large baggage. That is what the autopilot system on the new glider created by NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center and the Australian Center for Field Robotics in Sydney.

This particular plane flew autonomously for 5.3 hours beating the previous record by 60 minutes. The glider chooses a particular route of thermal currents and winds which favours its direction thus allowinf the plane the fly like an albatross or any other type of birds. It first travels through a high speed current to gain momentum and then moves on to a region of slower winds. The energy gained from the higher winds will allow the glider to lift. It can reach speeds of 600 km/h and has a large range.

Using the accelerometer and altimeter the autopilot can work out and create a local wind map of varying speeds and directions. The inventors say that the greatest danger to the plane can actually be the wear and tear caused by friction, heat and air resistance. This glider could be another example of benefits gained from observing nature.