NASA and AeroVironment, the California-based solar-electric powered aircraft developer, have signed a joint sponsored research agreement (JSRA) covering a new phase of development of the company's unique flying-wing technology.

The agreement builds on a relationship between NASA Dryden Flight Research Center and AeroVironment through the environmental research aircraft and sensor technology (ERAST) programme, and forms a platform for commercialisation of the technology. NASA wants to revise its links with government, industry and universities to stimulate interest in aerospace research and development.

John Del Frate, project manager for solar-powered aircraft at NASA Dryden, says the JSRA is "a framework for future partnering in commercial activities related to the Helios solar-electric family of aircraft". He adds the effort will help streamline AeroVironment and NASA plans to "merge solar-powered UAV [unmanned air vehicle] development into a single solar-electric platform programme aimed at developing multiple aircraft".

The partners are focused on commercialising two versions of the Helios extreme-endurance UAV. One will be capable of low- altitude flights lasting up to six months by using a regenerative fuel-cell-based energy storage system to provide power at night. Another will use a similar fuel-cell-based system without the regenerative feature, but using a hybrid system combining atmospherically derived oxygen with stored hydrogen. The latter variant is aimed at flights lasting up to two weeks at any altitude.

Proposed applications include earth monitoring; connectivity for television, cell phone systems and the internet; and surveillance.

Source: Flight International