22 August 1998

Who Needs a Pilot?

Although there are no plans to dispense with the pilot perhaps the first steps were taken this week.

On Friday a 29-pound robotic airplane completed the first trans-Atlantic crossing by an autonomous aircraft. The 2,000 mile flight from Bell Island, Newfoundland, to the Hebrides Islands of Scotland was completed in 26 hours and demonstrated the Aerosonde plane's potential to gather remote weather data over the oceans to improve forecasting.

Atmospheric weather gathering is generally undertaken by ballons which are naturally subject to the vagaries of the wind and air currents and hence do not necessarily gather the data which weather researchers require. The success of the flight by Laima demonstrates the possibility of unmanned aircraft becoming the aviation work-horses of the 21st Century.

Laima is the third aircraft which took off from Newfoundland and the only one to reach Scotland. "We were beginning to worry we wouldn't get one across, but we made it," says, Tad McGeer, president of The Insitu Group. The Bingen, Wash., aerospace research and development firm is working with Environmental Systems and Services of Melbourne, Australia, and The University of Washington Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics on development of the Aerosonde and on the trans-Atlantic crossing project

Laima also takes its own place in the trail of Atlantic aviation history by being the smallest aircraft yet, to make the journey.

Picture courtesy of Aerosonde Project