Pilotless plane crosses Atlantic

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The Independent Online
A NEW landmark in aviation history - heralding the dawn of a new era in better weather forecasting - has been made with the first ever flight of an unmanned, robot aircraft across the North Atlantic.

Following in the footsteps of the pioneer aviators, such as Alcock and Brown, or Charles Lindbergh, scientists launched their robot plane from Bell Island, Newfoundland, at 11am our time on Thursday. It landed at Benbecula Missile Test Range in the Outer Hebrides at 1.30pm on Friday. It covered 1,860 miles, staying well clear of normal aircraft flight paths.

The robot plane has a wingspan of 10ft, weighs 28lbs and is powered by only a 26cc petrol-driven engine, making this by far the smallest aircraft to attempt a trans-Atlantic crossing. Yet it is designed to withstand almost any weather. "Turbulence and rain isn't a problem. We've flown it in severe conditions but serious headwinds are a disaster because it flies fairly slowly," explained Greg Holland from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, one of the plane's inventors.

In test flights the plane has already flown continuously for 30 hours without refuelling. "This will be a completely robotic flight", claimed Dr Holland prior to the launch. "Once the aircraft takes off, it will make all decisions completely out of contact with people until it arrives at the Hebrides."

The robot was given a flight plan and told the latitude, longitude and altitudes to fly at between various points. Just like an aircraft captain, it then worked out how to navigate its way between those places.

The planes are easy to use: they can be launched from the roof of a car, and told where to fly to. When they are running low on fuel, they can fly back to a special site and land on their bellies. Once in production, each one will cost only about $10,000 (pounds 6,250), making them a hundred times cheaper to operate than conventional aircraft weather stations.

With the success of this flight, it is now hoped to use hundreds and even thousands of the robot aircraft as airborne weather stations to tell forecasters what's going on in the atmosphere all over the world.

The problem at the moment is that we have thousands of weather stations on land but very few at sea - and with three-quarters of the planet covered by oceans, that leaves forecasters with enormous black holes without information.

Eventually it is hoped to have hundreds and maybe thousands of robot aircraft all over the world flying at any one time. They will fly for up to four days without refuelling, packed with sensors to monitor wind, temperature, air pressure and humidity, and beam the information back using a new array of satellites specially designed for mobile phone users.

If forecasters see trouble brewing out at sea, they will simply dial up the robots and send them over to investigate.

"It [the robot plane] will revolutionise the whole way we do observations" claims Dr Holland. "It will give far better forecasts and in particular severe weather forecasts like storms ... The pilotless aircraft have a similar sort of potential to satellites when they first started flying."