UAV flies on laser light

Lockheed and LaserMotive power an unmanned aircraft from a distance

1 min read
UAV flies on laser light

Lockheed Martin and its Seattle-based partner, LaserMotive, yesterday announced that they have successfully powered an unmanned aerial vehicle, Lockheed's Stalker, with laser light. It was the first outdoor test of a system that’s meant to keep an electric UAV aloft far longer than its batteries alone could manage.

Other companies have used photovoltaic cells to harvest solar energy in fight. But you can’t do that at night or on cloudy days.

Last month Lockheed and LaserMotive powered this same military surveillance aircraft in a wind tunnel for two full days. The laser reaches just 600 meters, but that’s enough to keep a UAV in an orbit that gives troops a bird’s-eye view of their surroundings. The point of the test was to show that the laser beam could draw a bead on the UAV’s photocells without damaging the craft, despite the plane's maneuvers and despite air turbulence.

LaserMotive is based on the more general idea of using lasers to transmit power. Co-founder Jordin Kare, whom IEEE Spectrum profiled in 2011, had long wanted to use lasers to carry rockets into space by boiling a liquid propellant into vapor. But LaserMotive started small, winning a prize from NASA for its success in powering a robot cable-climber and then moved to toy helicopters before tackling military-grade UAVs.

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The New Supersonic Boom

Aeronautical engineers strive for a fresh start two decades after Concorde's demise

11 min read
A side by side comparison of the Concorde and Overture airliners.

The Concorde, an Anglo-French supersonic airliner that flew for the first time in 1969, used a triangular delta wing [left]. The same is true for the Overture, an airliner being developed by Boom Technology for introduction in 2029 [right].

Left: AP; Right: Boom Supersonic

On 9 April 1945, less than a month before the end of hostilities in Europe, a young Luftwaffe pilot named Hans Guido Mutke put his jet-propelled Messerschmitt Me 262 fighter-bomber into a steep dive, intending to come to the aid of a fellow airman below. As the Messerschmitt accelerated downward, the plane began to shake violently, and the controls became unresponsive. Mutke managed to regain control and lived to describe the incident, in which he later laid claim to having exceeded the speed of sound, a controversial but plausible assertion.

This and similar episodes during and after World War II led some to believe that aircraft would have great difficulty ever "breaking the sound barrier"—a phrase that led to a popular misconception that there is some kind of brick wall in the sky that a plane must pierce to fly at supersonic speeds.

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