The stormy North Atlantic is a treacherous place to fly. If trouble strikes, there's nowhere to set down but the icy ocean. Such dangers made Charles Lindbergh's 1927 transatlantic flight in The Spirit of St. Louis an international sensation. Now, 71 years later, another aircraft, the Laima, has met the transatlantic challenge. But this one did it without a pilot.
The Laima was built by the University of Washington and the Insitu Group, a company in Bingen, Washington, to gather offshore meteorologic data, particularly over the Pacific. Weather forecasting for the West Coast is hampered by a lack of information about incoming storm fronts, says Juris Vagners, an aerospace engineer at the University of Washington. "East Coast weather is easier to forecast because of the availability of data from the continental United States. We just don't have the soundings 3,000 miles off the West Coast."
The researchers have built three robotic flying weather stations, called aerosondes, and tested them on short flights over the Pacific. Each aerosonde packs a lot of electronics, including a radio, a Global Positioning System receiver, meteorologic instruments, and a computer, into a cramped 32-inch-long compartment. The miniature robotic airplanes have a ten-foot wingspan, weigh only 30 pounds, and fly using a modified model-airplane engine.
"We had been running field trials off the coast of Canada, but they'd all been within radio contact," says Vagners. "Although they were long missions, the thing had never gone over the horizon." He says the Atlantic crossing was intended as much as an attention-getter as a test of endurance. And while the flight, from Newfoundland to Scotland, was shorter than Lindbergh's, it proved that an aerosonde could fly autonomously for a few thousand miles in rough conditions. The next challenge will be a flight from Hawaii to California, perhaps within the next two years, and Vagners hopes the aerosondes will begin taking Pacific weather data regularly shortly thereafter.