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Laser keeps lightweight plane aloft

15 Oct 2003

NASA says it has demonstrated the first laser-powered aircraft.

NASA claims to have demonstrated the world's first laser-power aircraft. Equipped with solar cells alone, the lightweight plane flew by solely converting energy from a ground-based laser into electricity to power its propeller.

The project is the brainchild of scientists from NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center in California and Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. The idea is to create solar-powered craft that can make long endurance flights that last a few days or even weeks.

“The challenge is in winter at latitudes where the days are short and the nights are long, it is very difficult to get enough [solar] power,” explained David Bushman, the project manager at Dryden. “A laser could be used to augment the energy on these short days to “top up” the energy storage system to allow the plane to continue to fly throughout the long night.”

The radio-controlled model plane weighs just 11 ounces, has a five foot wingspan and is made from balsa wood and carbon fiber tubing. An array of solar cells, developed by the University of Alabama in Huntsville, is attached to the underside of the plane and efficiently converts the energy from the ground-based 1 kW infrared laser into electricity.

The test itself was carried out indoors to prevent the lightweight plane getting blown off course. After launching the plane from a platform, the laser was targeted on its solar cells. NASA says the plane completed several laps of the building before the laser was turned off and the plane glided in to land. Each flight lasted approximately 10 minutes and the maximum distance between the aircaft and the laser was about 20 m.

"The plane could continue to fly for as long as we provided energy through the the laser beam," Bushman told Optics.org. "The most difficult task was tracking the airplane and keeping the laser beam on the photovoltaics."

As for potential applications, Bushman is not short of ideas. “A telecommunications company could put transponders on an airplane and fly it over a city,” he said. “The aircraft could be used for everything from relaying cell phone calls to cable television.”

Jacqueline Hewett is news reporter on Optics.org and Opto & Laser Europe magazine.

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