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January 28, 2002

Release: 02-03

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This summer, look for a solar-powered airplane to glean meaningful data about Hawaiian coffee crops, when it is not otherwise engaged in demonstrating state-of-the-art telecommunications applications.

NASA and commercial researchers are planning the missions to confirm the practical utility of high-flying, remotely piloted, environmentally friendly solar aircraft. Using a lightweight flying wing called the Pathfinder-Plus, the researchers will operate from the U.S. Navy's Pacific Missile Range Facility (PMRF) at Barking Sands on the island of Kaua'i. Last summer, the team from NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center and commercial partner AeroVironment, Inc., flew the larger Helios Prototype solar airplane from PMRF to a record altitude of 96,863 feet.

This summer's first two operations, co-sponsored by AeroVironment and their telecommunications customers, are tentatively scheduled for mid- to late June. They are aimed at a large segment of the uninhabited aerial vehicle (UAV) market for which AeroVironment, Inc., developer of the solar-electric flying wings, believes the aircraft are uniquely suited-as airborne platforms for commercial telecommunications relay services.

"The first planned telecom demo is a third-generation mobile application providing two-way data rates of up to 384 kilobytes per second to a mobile user on the ground, suitable for video transmission to a handheld device, as well as for other voice and data transmissions including Internet access," said Stuart Hindle, vice-president of strategy and business development for AeroVironment subsidiary SkyTower, Inc. "The second telecom demo is a digital high definition television application providing a picture-perfect video broadcast signal to a fixed receiver on the ground at twice the resolution of conventional broadcast transmissions."

Hindle noted that for the telecom applications, the Pathfinder-Plus and its on-board transceiver, flying above the weather at 60,000 feet, would act like an 11-mile tall tower in the sky, doing the function of a geostationary satellite but without the time delay. According to AeroVironment/SkyTower chief executive officer Tim Conver, just one of the firm's solar-electric aircraft could provide broadband local access services at "over 1,000 times the capacity of a typical space-based satellite, be deployed at a fraction of the cost of cable and DSL, and be set up in a matter of days."

The third demonstration, planned for September, will find the Pathfinder-Plus soaring aloft on a three-flight coffee harvest optimization mission. While the flying wing loiters overhead at about 20,000 feet altitude, compact cameras will record spectral images of the Kaua'i Coffee Company plantation, the largest coffee plantation in the United States. The resulting color images will help growers determine which fields of coffee are ripest for harvest on a given day.

"Our objective is to demonstrate how this solar-powered UAV can be used as a platform for the acquisition and immediate use of high-resolution imagery," said principal investigator Dr. Stan Herwitz of Clark University, Worcester, Mass. "It is important to note that coffee is only one of many commercial UAV applications that we foresee using our imaging payload."

Following the flights, the research team will share the results of the study with the plantation manager, and the data will also be available to agricultural interests around the world on the Internet.

The coffee study is one of two demonstration missions funded by NASA's Earth Science Enterprise over a multi-year period to demonstrate the utility of UAVs for Earth science and commercial applications.

"The Navy at Barking Sands established a working relationship with us on previous research missions, including the record altitude flights," said Jeff Bauer, Environmental Research Aircraft and Sensor Technology (ERAST) project manager at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, Calif. "We plan to continue that relationship with this summer's missions and future missions now being planned."

"The Pathfinder-Plus aircraft is available as a test platform for research and development of commercial missions," Bauer added. "If the customer has the funds, we have the capability."


Note to Editors: Still photos and video footage of the Pathfinder-Plus are available from the Dryden Public Affairs Office to support this release. High-resolution photos are available on the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center Internet Web site, URL: /centers/dfrc/Gallery/Photo/Pathfinder-Plus/index.html

For hard-copy still photos or video B-roll footage, call Alan Brown at (661) 276-2665. NASA Dryden news releases are also available on the Internet at: /centers/dfrc/Newsroom/NewsReleases/index.html

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