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UAV breaks record with transatlantic crossing

An uninhabited aerial vehicle (UAV) completed a 3,200km (2,000nm) transatlantic flight on 21 August using only 6 litres (2USgal) of fuel during the 26h crossing.

The record flight was achieved by an Aerosonde "robotic" aircraft built by composite manufacturing specialist RnR Products of Milpitas, California. It was developed over the past three years by Washington-based Insitu Group, an aerospace research and development firm, the University of Washington, and Environmental Systems and Services of Melbourne, Australia.

The project aimed to demonstrate the viability of low-cost autonomous aircraft for long range, overwater weather reconnaissance, and was sponsored by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology Research Centre, Boeing, L-3 Communications, Conic Division and the US Office of Naval Research. Further flights with a weather data gathering pack are planned for mid-1999 off the Pacific Northwest. Before the transatlantic attempt, field trials were also conducted off the coasts of Western Australia, Vancouver Island and the South China Sea.

The 2.7m- span UAV is powered by a 20cc engine and weighs 13.1kg. After being launched from the top of a car from Bell Island, Newfoundland at 06.29 local time on 20 August, it navigated autonomously across the Atlantic using its onboard global positioning satellite navigation system. Following a pre-programmed flight path to the Benbecula military range it activated a beacon which was picked up by engineers at the Scottish base at 1.15 on 21 August. The ground crew took over manual remote control and landed it 25min later on South Uist Island in the Outer Hebrides.

The UAV was one of three despatched, but was the only one to complete the journey. The University of Washington says: "We're not quite sure what happened to the first. It just disappeared after take-off on Monday". The second, released shortly after the first, crashed "within a minute of take-off because of a technical malfunction".

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