Laser-powered aircraftAn unmanned aircraft powered by a ground-based laser was demonstrated at Osaka Dome on March 7. The aircraft is the work of a Kinki University research team led by Professor Nobuki Kawashima (aeronautical engineering). The researchers expect the aircraft to be used for gathering information in the event of a disaster.

The aircraft measures 78 cm (30 in.) long, weighs 800 grams (1.8 lbs.), and has wings like a kite. A disc-shaped solar panel attached underneath powers the propeller when struck by a ground-based laser.

A battery powered the aircraft’s propeller at takeoff, but once it reached an altitude of about 50 meters (165 feet) -- near the ceiling of the dome -- the aircraft switched to laser-powered flight. The laser remained on target (error less than 1 cm) throughout the 20-minute flight around the dome. Observers say the aircraft looked like a kite flying on a string of light.

Flight time with this technology is unlimited as long as the laser can reach the aircraft, as opposed to a 5-minute flight time when powered by battery. Researchers envision this type of aircraft being used to get an understanding of areas devastated by earthquake or flood, or to serve as flying communication relay stations. Leisure-related applications are also possible.

"We would like to extend the tracking distance and increase the size of the aircraft," says Kawashima. "Hopefully we can make it commercially available in about 2 or 3 years."

[Source: Asahi Shimbun]