It looks strange but is one of many aircraft that could be ushering in a new era and reaching the edge of space.
“The Taurus G4 NASA Racer is a technology demonstrator,” explained Tine Tomažič, leader of the Pipistrel G4 development team. “It is the first-ever electric four-place aircraft.”
Unveiled at the Oshkosh Airventure event this summer, Pipistrel’s new, twin-fuselage, 75-foot wingspan plane is powered by only a 145-kilowatt brushless electric motor mounted, very nontraditionally, between two passenger pods.
One of Pipistrel’s other innovations is the Virus S-Wing: proclaimed the fastest ultralight plane in the world at speeds up to 186 mph. (The maximum allowable speed for these in the U.S. is 64 mph.)
In 2007 it claimed the NASA Centennial challenge title of the best Personal Air Vehicle, and in 2008 it won the main prize in the General Aviation Challenge with its low noise, extremely low fuel consumption and excellent maneuverability.
An Idea Whose Time Has Come
This Slovenian-based company is one example of the worldwide expansion of more “green” aircraft designs. They join those of Germany’s PC-Aero and Lange Aviation’s Antares 20E, China’s Yuneec E430, USA’s (Colorado) “The Green Flight Project,” and others in making efficient all-electric flight not just possible but efficient and economically attractive.
This fuel-or-battery-powered approach, however, is one of several paths these aerospace engineers have taken.
By “enviroplanes,” I refer to any aircraft that uses more ecologically-friendly technology in its operation and/or manufacture.
The culmination of work in materials development, solar cell improvements, gas prices, environmental concerns, and expanded views on uses for scientific research and defence seems to have brought about a new age of aircraft design advancements.
In general, very few basic aircraft configurations, powerplants, materials, and economics have been brought together in marketable, drastically new ways for the aviation market since about the 1950s.
Now, a whole new generation of flying machines seems to be pushing the envelope, testing their limits in skies around the world as well as testing their saleability to people and governments.
Although the only currently successful “steam powered airplane” of which I know is a bluegrass band in Jackson Hole, there are many approaches to green aeropower. Here are just a few.
Human-powered airplanes have been built and flown in significant numbers around the world.
Notable inventions include the Gossamer Condor 2 that won the first Kremer prize in 1977 by flying 2,172 meters, followed by the Gossamer Albatross’ flight from England to France (35.82 miles) in 1979: a feat that won the second Kremer prize.
The current human-powered fixed-wing distance record was achieved with a flight of 75 miles from Crete to Santorini in an MIT Daedalus 88.
Stephane Rousson’s Zeppy: pedal-powered airship
Development continues, and airplanes aren’t the only pedal aircraft.
French inventors have created human-powered airships, and California Polytechnic State Univerity’s Da Vinci III is listed as the first successful human-powered helicopter with a 7.1 second, 20 cm flight. In 1994, Nihon Aero Student Group set the current world pedal helicopter record with a 19.46 second, 20 cm flight in the Yuri I.
Let It Shine
A group called Astro Flight built the first solar-powered, non-human carrying airplane in 1974.
The radio-controlled Sunrise II generated 450 watts of power, weighed 27 pounds, had a 32′ wingspan, and boasted a then-impressive service ceiling of 20,000 feet depending on the sunlight.
Since the 80’s, Aerovinronment has developed solar-powered aircraft including its Solar Challenger that carried a human pilot across the English Channel and the Pathfinder that climbed to 71,530 feet: far above typical airliner altitudes.
Pathfinder over Hawaii
Developed under NASA’s Environmental Research Aircraft and Sensor Technology (ERAST) program to promote unmanned aircraft that can stay on station above 60,000 feet for extended periods, Aerovironment’s remotely-piloted Centurion is a prototype for future craft that could stay aloft for weeks conducting scientific research, imaging, or additional tasks.
It has a 206 foot wingspan covered with solar cells that produce 31 kilowatts of power at high noon on a sunny day, powering 14 motors and all other systems.
British defense firm Qinetiq’s Zephyr is a lightweight solar-powered unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that holds the official endurance record for an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) for its flight from July , 2010 flight lasting 336 hours and 22 minutes.
A Glimpse of the Future
Enhanced from the Centurion, the Helios has expected flight durations of six months.
This opens the possibility of non-polluting, economical “atmospheric satellites.” Potential further developments in this area include the DARPA-funded Vulture UAV with an anticipated, and incredible, five years on station at 60,000-90,000 feet.
These are only a few examples of aircraft, from general aviation to high-tech scientific research, being improved and creating increasingly larger market offerings of “enviroplanes.”
© Mark Dorr, All Rights Reserved