A team of engineers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has developed an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) that can remain aloft for five days that could be used for disaster relief missions. The engineers are part of the MIT Lincoln Laboratory Beaver Works Center and recently presented their research results at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics in Denver, Colorado. Previous UAS designs, such as Facebook’s Aquila drone, have suggested that an aircraft could be solar-powered and remain in flight indefinitely, but the team of engineers determined that this was not feasible for long duration emergency response missions in locations far from the equator during seasons when there is not as much sunlight. In addition to these limitations, a solar powered vehicle requires a large surface area for solar panels and a heavy battery.
The MIT team designed, built, and tested an unpiloted glider having a 24-foot wingspan. The vehicle is able to transport communications equipment to provide temporary telecommunications and Internet coverage and fly at an altitude of 15,000 feet. The engineers chose a five-horsepower gasoline engine, allowing the vehicle to remain in the air for more than five days at any latitude. This is longer than any previous autonomous aircraft has remained in flight. The vehicle weighed 55 pounds and included carbon fiber and Kevlar components. The parts of the vehicle are designed to be easily assembled and disassembled and fit in a small box such that they may be shipped to areas in need of disaster relief.
As shown in this video, the UAS took its first test flight on May 5, 2017. The vehicle was mounted to a typical roof rack on a compact car that served as a launch vehicle. The car accelerated down a runway at Plum Island Airport in Newbury, Massachusetts to an optimal takeoff speed. At the takeoff speed, the UAS lifted off and was piloted by a remote pilot and successfully landed on the runway after a short flight. The MIT team is in the process of obtaining permission from the FAA to keep the vehicle in the air for five days and continued testing. In addition to disaster relief, the UAS may also have other purposes such as environmental monitoring of wildfires or bodies of water.