By Bill Moore
The air is thin and very, very cold at 65,000 feet. Only a handful of specialized military aircraft like the U2 and now-retired SR-71 "Blackbird" have regularly operated along the ragged edges of the stratosphere.
Now Monrovia, California-based AeroVironment hopes to someday deploy its Global Observer Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) in a host of high-flying, wide-ranging missions, both commercial, military and government funded. In the age of heightened national security concerns, as well as environmental ones, aerial platforms that fill the niche between conventional reconnaissance aircraft and satellites could be valuable assets in monitoring the health of the planet politically and ecologically.
EV World -- which acknowledges AeroVironment as one its "Platnium Sponsors" -- talked with Ted Wierzbanowski (pronounced "where's-bah-now-sky") , who oversees the company's growing UAV programs for the US Army and Navy, about the Global Observer project and the challenge of remaining aloft at such high altitudes for so long a period of time.
We first asked him to briefly recount the company's long history of record-breaking aircraft development starting with Dr. MacCready's -- the company chairman -- efforts to capture the Kremer Prizes for man-powered flight in the 1970's, which made the good doctor one of my personal heroes.
Out of those prize-winning triumphs came the predecessor of the Global Observer, a long-endurance UAV powered by early 1980's solar-electric technology, which simply couldn't deliver sufficient energy at the time to meet the objectives of the program. That aircraft was rolled into storage and the company moved on to electric cars, developing the Sunraycer and Santanna, the latter a prototype that eventually became the GM EV1, itself now a piece of automotive history and lore.
According to Wierzbanowski, photovoltaic cell and battery storage technology had progressed enough in the 1990's, that the company was able to convince NASA to fund a 10-year program dedicated to exploring remote sensing using the old solar plane that had been stored away for nearly a decade. With longer wingspan and more powerful solar cells and batteries, the Pathfinder was born, eventually soaring to altitudes of 70,000 feet. Pathfinder paved the way for Helios which flew unmanned on solar power alone to 97,000 feet last year before being destroyed in an accident off the coast of Hawaii.
But large UAVs are only a small part of AeroVironment's repertoire of self-guided, electric-powered reconnaissance aircraft.
"What folks probably don't realize is that we have a family of very small electric-powered aircraft that are being used by the military today that normally fly below 400-500 feet above the ground with electrical, optical infrared cameras on them. They are used by the frontline soldiers. They hand launch these. They're able to get video back to see what's over the next hill or behind the building; and they are finding them quite valuable in a lot of the areas of the world we're in right now".
AeroVironment now has two distinct, but interrelated business focuses: energy and flight. A small percentage of its business comes from building rapid chargers for commercial applications such as industrial forklifts. UAVs now constitute the largest segment of its business.