NASA engineers have tested out a prototype unmanned sailplane that can detect and use rising air thermals to gain altitude. Once it finds a thermal, it turs off its engine and circles to stay within the updraft. NASA hopes to develop techniques for using thermals that could extend the range of unmanned aerial vehicles that often have very limited fuel.
During the tests the 14-foot-wingspan model added 60 minutes to its endurance by autonomous thermal soaring.
“The flights demonstrated a small unmanned vehicle can mimic birds and exploit the free energy that exists in the atmosphere,” said NASA aerospace engineer Michael Allen.
Small, portable, unpiloted, long-endurance vehicles could fulfill a number of observation roles including forest fire monitoring, traffic control, search and rescue.