A team of engineers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have come up with a new design for unpiloted aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones that help them hover for longer durations.
In the event of a natural disaster which directly disrupts phone and internet connectivity in the region, the breakthrough design can enable autonomous aircrafts provide temporary telecommunication coverage over longer periods.
The researchers designed, built, and tested a UAV resembling a thin glider with a 24-foot wingspan. This vehicle can carry 10 to 20 pounds of communications equipment while flying at an altitude of 15,000 feet. Weighing in at just under 150 pounds, the vehicle is powered by a 5-horsepower gasoline engine and can keep itself aloft for more than five days which researchers say, is longer than any gasoline powered autonomous aircraft has been able to achieve.
Currently, UAVs can only remain in the air for a day or two, as is the case with most autonomous surveillance aircrafts operated by the U.S. Air Force. This makes round-the-clock temporary telecom coverage through UAV's very expensive as they require multiple aircrafts, landing and refuelling around the clock, making the new design more cost effective.
“There are a few aspects to flying for five straight days. But we’re pretty confident that we have the right fuel burn rate and right engine that we could fly it for five days,” said Warren Hoburg, the Boeing Assistant Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics and co - leader of the team along with R. John Hansman, the T. Wilson Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
“These vehicles could be used not only for disaster relief but also other missions, such as environmental monitoring. You might want to keep watch on wildfires or the outflow of a river, the Boeing Assistant Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics.” said Hansman, “I think it’s pretty clear that someone within a few years will manufacture a vehicle that will be a knockoff of this.”
The breakthrough was a product of what was initially supposed to be a long-duration UAV powered by solar energy. This was based on the idea that an aircraft, fueled by the sun, could potentially remain in flight indefinitely. But this did not take off the way it was intended to because of the irregularity of the sun during winters, especially in areas farther away from the Earth's equator.