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Robotic Glider Set To Break Autonomous Flight Records

Soulskill posted more than 5 years ago | from the leaf-on-the-wind dept.

Robotics 33

SoaringIsAwesome writes "Dan Edwards, a student at NC State University, is attempting to break two records by creating an autonomous glider. The project goal is a 142-mile cross country flight and a 25-mile flight (with return) without human intervention. The glider finds thermal updrafts and automatically circles them to gain altitude, much like birds and insects do. Recently, the glider flew in the desert for 4.5 hours, covering 70.5 miles by itself using only air currents to stay aloft. Since the NC State demonstration vehicle does not have a motor, this shows real promise for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that actually have a motor, with possibilities of extending flight duration considerably. Combine daytime soaring with a solar energy system to charge batteries for the night, such as the 84-hour flight by QinetiQ's Zephyr, and you might just get an answer to flying for months on end. With this kind of endurance, the eye in the sky that the city of Lancaster is considering might be even more practical."

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NC is North Carolina, right? (1)

BadAnalogyGuy (945258) | more than 5 years ago | (#28668039)

Isn't the U.S. slightly wider than 142 miles? How can that be "cross country"?

Re:NC is North Carolina, right? (3, Informative)

Brian Gordon (987471) | more than 5 years ago | (#28668101)

Do a 2-second search [] yourself. It's when you're actually navigating from start to destination instead of just sort of flying around in circles and landing where you started.

Re:NC is North Carolina, right? (1)

mercurized (907818) | more than 5 years ago | (#28668177)

Maybe they ment "cross county"

Re:NC is North Carolina, right? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#28668443)

Maybe you meant "meant".

Re:NC is North Carolina, right? (4, Funny)

goombah99 (560566) | more than 5 years ago | (#28668203)

Moreover, the thing just kept circling the Data centers where all the thermals were. If you hide in a cool valley you are safe I guess.

Autonomous Soaring (2, Interesting)

feufeu (1109929) | more than 5 years ago | (#28669771)

Come on guys, that's all about trying to emulate a migrating bird's flight with a model glider on limited resources. IMHO the challenge is to squeeze the necessary instrumentation in a model glider and do the programming for autonomous operation. On a first approach "finding thermals" is not more than 1) glide in a straight line and wait, 2) when lift is detected (altitude increases), turn, 3) when lift dies off goto 1). So that shouldn't be too difficult to implement. The *real* geek fun is : "try to implement other senses to improve the probability of finding a thermal", like used by birds or pilots of paragliders, hang gliders & sailplanes: "see" cumulus clouds, other birds, planes... sense differences in the temperature of the air... look for spots/features on the ground likely to produce thermals.

Re:Autonomous Soaring (1)

ChrisMP1 (1130781) | more than 5 years ago | (#28671191)

Those steps might *find* a thermal, but they won't get you any altitude. Let me guess: You've never actually flown a glider?

Re:Autonomous Soaring (4, Informative)

feufeu (1109929) | more than 5 years ago | (#28671717)

Wrong guess, i've 5000+hrs in real size ones, no kidding.

The problem basically breaks down into two parts:

1) find a thermal

Standard theory says that thermals are spaced at intervals of about 1.5 times their vertical extension (ground to cloud base or top of blue thermal with no Cu cloud on top) and using all his senses a glider pilot has a fair chance of getting from one to the next without hitting the ground first. If the only available option to find the next thermal is to fly in a straight line and wait until you hit it, it's still working most of the time (that's when thermals are not marked by clouds and i suppose this guy's gizmo can't see them anyway). Taking into consideration the much smaller L/D (distance that it can glide from a given height) of a model i don't know if it still works, but the results in TFA seem to confirm this. I can't see that he uses another way of finding the thermal

2) use the thermal = climb

I'd think that given the small turning radius of a model glider and the large radius of a thermal not too near the ground there is no need to center the thermal nearer to the core in order to get some altitude. This might not apply to microthermals near the ground and is not very effective of course. The development (read the papers on the website) tries to deal with this problem by modeling the thermal from measurements of vertical speed and maneuvering the glider nearer to it's core in order to climb faster / at all. BTW that's what >50% of soaring a glider is all about and it's something that involves lots of senses, hence my first comment.

Re:NC is North Carolina, right? (2, Informative)

Falconhell (1289630) | more than 5 years ago | (#28670483)

Cross country in Gliding generally refers to flying outside glide range of the airfield, most often onn a triangular course of a set distance.

Re:NC is North Carolina, right? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#28675345)

Maybe they're doing the flight in Chile.

Hmm (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#28668083)

I remember reading some joke wondering if in the future we'll have ghost planes adrift in the skies of earth for years before anyone finds them, like old lost sailing ships slowly drifting around millions of miles of ocean. What's that from?

Re:Hmm (1)

4D6963 (933028) | more than 5 years ago | (#28668221)

That'd be cool, but if it doesn't happen you could still go up and visit an old satellite launched in 1958.

By the way, ain't there been "ghost balloons" already?

Re:Hmm (1)

fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) | more than 5 years ago | (#28668727)

Probably depends on what they are made of. If they have a nontrivial radar signature, they'll probably be picked up fairly easily when they drift toward anywhere with significant civil or military aviation going on. If they are made entirely of plastics or something and aren't a hugely visible color, they might evade detection for rather longer.

Or (1)

Colin Smith (2679) | more than 5 years ago | (#28668119)

You can fill a bubble with helium and stay up as long as you like.


Re:Or (1)

newcastlejon (1483695) | more than 5 years ago | (#28668153)

Or you could seal/partition the inside of the fuselage and pump the air out. At least then you might have something that can go faster than a balloon

Re:Or (1)

John Hasler (414242) | more than 5 years ago | (#28671441)

Well, until the helium leaks out (helium always leaks out).

Surveillance (5, Insightful)

TheMeuge (645043) | more than 5 years ago | (#28668145)

With this kind of endurance, the eye in the sky that the city of Lancaster is considering might be even more practical.

Are we happy about that? Stazi managed to keep a hundred thousand people under surveillance with just manpower. The inevitability of a technological solution to their inability to perform 24/7 surveillance of 100% of their citizens makes me shudder. As staggering as this is, I am fairly sure that only overwhelming cost is preventing many governments (including UK, AU and US in that order), from implementing such measures, since it's becoming clear that the citizens are willing to give up any privacy and liberty they have left, in order to feel safer, and (at best) reduce their absolute risks by minute amounts.

Re:Surveillance (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#28668323)

Get yourself a gun, while it's not to late.
Preferably high caliber, .50 preferable for 1 mile+ performance.
Train with it.

Re:Surveillance (1)

vlm (69642) | more than 5 years ago | (#28668347)

As staggering as this is, I am fairly sure that only overwhelming cost is preventing many governments (including UK, AU and US in that order), from implementing such measures, since it's becoming clear that the citizens are willing to give up any privacy and liberty they have left, in order to feel safer, and (at best) reduce their absolute risks by minute amounts.

No, the govt spends like a drunken sailor and this technology is pretty cheap. The real reason is PR related.

1) Since the only govt goal is providing security theater, as opposed to real security, hiring some uneducated ineffective bullies to stand around the airport and intimidate innocent civilians is cheaper, more theatrical, and has plenty of opportunity to buy votes and/or do corrupt deals, thus it meets the goals much more effectively... Security theater has to be in your face and over the top and a little airplane is not.

2) The other aspect is vaguely similar to some theories about nuclear non-proliferation. Frankly the cost of a flying drone is pretty low for anyone, not just the government. Spending lots of govt money merely gives the whole technology a higher profile and lowers the costs for non-government operated drones. Consider a little airplane in Tijuana being filled with "something" and landing in El Paso times about a zillion. A street gang could have its own small scale airforce... Even without any R and D right now, consider what could be done w/ RC cars for street level transactions. Out of sight out of mind is the crucial feature here, with the govt hoping the bad guys don't get any ideas... Which brings up the famous saying about hope in one hand and #### in the other and see which fills first.

Re:Surveillance (1)

OeLeWaPpErKe (412765) | more than 5 years ago | (#28670029)

Actually drug gangs HAVE already been caught with their "little own air force". I believe one unmanned drug delivery probe has already been found. I have little doubt they will soon multiply thousandfold.

Some very worrying comments from someone who builds these things [] . You really think none of the people capable of doing this took the offer ?

And the only way you're going to stop a large fleet of (very cheap) UAV's for any reasonable price (whatever people say, economics, not militaries, win wars, so downing UAV's with ground-air munitions amounts to suicide) your only option is a large fleet of UAV's. If you expect anyone to try it, there is only one option : build them.

Re:Surveillance (2, Interesting)

Darkeye11547 (889506) | more than 5 years ago | (#28668655)

Newsflash, the reality is that surveillance technology is susceptible to Moore's Law. It's getting cheaper and better every year. It won't be too long before privacy outside of one's private bunker (and probably inside it too) is a luxury no-one can afford. I already own no less than four cameras, and that's not even counting things that /only/ take pictures. If some company released a product next year, some sort of pendant or pair of glasses that would constantly record to cheap storage media, I would buy it immediately because there are always moments I wish Iwould have caught if I'd only had my camera out at the time. I wouldn't wear it for personal security. I'd wear it to catch youtube moments. Multiply this by the local population, and you've got a de-facto panopticon.

Re:Surveillance (1)

fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) | more than 5 years ago | (#28668753)

Something like that [] ?

re:Surveillance (1)

HalAtWork (926717) | more than 5 years ago | (#28668705)

But by the same token it seems like citizens are demanding more and more protection from themselves, because when something bad happens to them, it doesn't matter if it's their own fault, they blame it on other people and sue until people are forced to stop people from exploiting the situation to absolve themselves and make others pay for what they have ruined for themselves. In short, people seem to practically beg for harsh reprimands, and less responsibility, and less control, because these are the most effective short-term solutions to implement to placate those who demand immediate satisfaction.

Re:Surveillance (1)

GreenCow (201973) | more than 5 years ago | (#28669119)

it's becoming clear that the citizens are willing to give up any privacy and liberty they have left

I think it is important to make a distinction between privacy and liberty; privacy would be your ability to prevent others from having access to information that you have, and liberty is a more general freedom to do all sorts of things. Privacy is a subset of liberty. For example, I may be willing to give up privacy, but I may, at the same time, push for greater liberties in other areas, such as consuming marijuana.

We should understand the benefits of privacy. In the previous example, I may use privacy to consume marijuana without facing the legal consequences. On the other hand, I may be failing to liberate marijuana by consuming it privately and pushing the issue of privacy instead. Of course, we can work towards multiple goals simultaneously. Still, this is advocating privacy in order to circumvent the law, not the noblest of reasons, but certainly one which is widespread. One might suggest this as a negative for privacy, but this perception will probably depend on your perception of the current laws. In the worst case, the laws might seem good and the benefits of a loss in privacy may seem worthy enough to create a transparent society, which could then change the laws into something draconian.

There are other benefits of privacy, I won't cover them all. Another one is the capitalistic motivation to innovate. Without privacy, innovations could become public domain without as much benefit to the inventor. On the other hand, your secret stash of magnet-based free energy devices would be more likely to reach fruition if they were made public, creating more immediate benefits for society as a whole. Here's a quote to chew on: "It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit" -Harry Truman.

It's not like privacy would ever go away. We have our private thoughts and public key cryptography. Are cameras over public spaces so different from random patrols by the police? Shouldn't we feel safer that violent crime is in decline as the dark spaces in our cities become illuminated?

Re:Surveillance (2, Insightful)

TheMeuge (645043) | more than 5 years ago | (#28669189)

I disagree. I would argue that privacy is absolutely required for liberty in the real world. The two are inextricably linked, because the only rights you have, are ones you can defend. Defending your rights in the face of a segment of society that knows everything about you, while you know nothing about them, is a rather doomed endeavor.

So while people keep talking about their freedoms, they are being deprived of their weapons, and their privacy. And in the absence of either, there can be no liberty.

Re:Surveillance (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#28670203)

Give me a sticky substance (gum, glue, marmalade, peanut butter, paint, etc.), and a means of delivering that sticky substance (a long stick, thrown wad of paper, a rock, a hand, etc.) and it's more than convieniently easy to disable ground level or near ground level surveilance cameras. Cameras don't work too well with blur-o-vision or by having an opaque object simply stuck to them. Throw in a disguise or other temporary countermeasure (really strong IR LEDs) and if no other security presence is in the area, it should be trivial to remain anonymous and bug out after defeating the system. If done often enough and repeated, maintenance costs become prohibitive vs. having boots on the ground. In an era of limited budgets and/or manpower, that means a win against a surveillance state.

Now if they have eyes in the sky, that's an entirely different problem. Yet this throws in another hurdle of problems for how well they can see you. Any mobile cameras will be tricky to deal with. But as I said, any stationary mounted cameras are sitting ducks to say the least, it's just that the populace hasn't yet got to the point where they feel threatened by them.

courage of lashing new records is inspirational (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#28672917)

How wonderful if man can fly as long as we wish.

Collisions? (2, Interesting)

Martin Hellman (1254284) | more than 5 years ago | (#28673329)

As a pilot who has occasionally had to dodge birds and stray helium balloons, what worries me is the small, but non-zero chance that such an autonomous glider could collide with a manned (or womanned) aircraft. FAA Advisory Circular 91-57 recommends that model aircraft fly no higher than 400' and take other precautions not to interfere with full-scale aircraft. Given the length of his flights, I strongly suspect he is flying well above that.

Re:Collisions? (1)

fprintf (82740) | more than 5 years ago | (#28677497)

As a RC Sailplane pilot I can tell you that this advisory does not apply universally to all US airspace. I have documented flights well over 1500' where the 3 meter plane was just a small speck in the sky. I do not disagree that having an autonomous sailplane flying above 4500' is dangerous, or significantly lower than that in typically travelled airspace.

I would just advise to check out the interpretation of that particular FAA advisory with the AMA (Aeronautical Modelers Association) - my recollection is that flights over 400' are very much allowed. Heck some of their cross country RC flight contests virtually guarantee violation - hell, my winches had *more* than 400' of line on them, so the minimum starting altitudes already broke the "advisory".

Re:Collisions? (1)

Martin Hellman (1254284) | more than 5 years ago | (#28681071)

FAA Advisory Circulars are just that - advisory and not mandatory. But, if deviance from that advice leads to accidents, especially fatalities, then they have a tendency to become mandatory regulations. Depending on where you guys are flying, the risk may be small or large, hopefully something your safety committee is taking into account.

Blatant "relevant" karma collecting ? (1)

rixster_uk (1216414) | more than 5 years ago | (#28673845)

I've been looking for a out of the box UAV project for some time now (or in fact just a land or water based one). The best I can find so far is : "paparazzi" at [] - but it's still quite a bit of work to plug all the bits together (and right now I have very little spare tinkering time). Anybody got any other options ??
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