A system to detect thermals and enable an unmanned glider to fly within them could be developed after flight trials in 2006.

The thermal flight system will form part of a 91kg (200lb) glider with a 12.2m (40ft) wingspan that could carry sensor payloads able to provide 360° coverage while staying aloft for more than 24h.

Sponsored initially with $3 million from the US Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command’s advanced technology directorate, the first flight tests will take place next year at 12,000ft.

“We will add a mode feature to the variable autonomy control system [VACS] for maintaining thermal flight,” says Geneva Aerospace’s sales and marketing vice-president Vince Longhi.

“We have to find ways of transitioning from varying modes of flight,” he says.

The company is providing its VACS Flightek flight-control computer for the glider, which will have to be able to change from a thermal-following flight pattern to one that will ensure it reaches its destination.

The glider is under development at the Mississippi State University’s Raspet Research Flight Laboratory. The laboratory is using carbonfibre and epoxy composites to keep the glider’s mass down and expects to spend $16 million on the project over three years.

As well as Geneva Aerospace, the laboratory is working with Utah-based Alliant Techsystems on high-temperature composite materials and Huntsville, Alabama-based Miltec and its Oxford, Mississippi subsidiary, Miltec Research and Technology, on “plug-and-play” sensor packages for easy swapping between infrared or electro-optical payloads.

Source: Flight International