The Pathfinder aircraft is a solar powered aircraft system, which can fly up to a height of 50,000 feet. The aircraft was developed under the HOL-SOL government program and later on adopted and modified by the scientists of NASA. The uniqueness of the aircraft lies in the fact that it is solar powered, light weight and can fly at very high altitudes. It can be controlled remotely without the need of a pilot.
Imagine an aircraft which can fly itself, without any refuelling or pilot. Sounds too sci-fi right? Well it is not at all fictional. The Pathfinder aircraft is a self-sustained, remotely operated, high altitude aircraft which can stay afloat all day and night. It looks like a flying wing, which is covered with solar cells. These cells trap the solar energy and help the aircraft to fly in the day. The aircraft is also equipped with batteries which can store backup, to be used in the absence of sunlight at night time. The aircraft can fly in high attitudes at the speed of 15 to 25 mph and can take turns by altering the speed of the electric motors.Due to its unique built and applications, the aircraft was awarded by the National Aeronautic Association for its record flight in 1995.
History of Pathfinder aircraft
Pathfinder aircraft was originally developed in the 1980s for high altitude surveillance purposes, under a classified government program. The program was shut down and the aircraft was sent to storage, before NASA's Environmental Research Aircraft and Sensor Technology (ERAST) program adopted it in 1994. Since then the aircraft has been redeveloped and upgraded to its present form.
Real time applications:
The pathfinder aircraft has been used in many science based activities, which mostly include environmental monitoring and technical demonstration.
It was used for the monitoring and detection of nutrient status of re-growth of forests that were badly damaged in Hurricane Iniki in 1992. Some other activities of the aircraft include assessment of algal concentrations in coastal waters and the study of health status of coral reefs.
In 1997, the Pathfinder aircraft was also used to flight test newly developed scientific instruments such as high spectral resolution Digital Array Scanned Interferometer (DASI) and high spatial resolution Airborne Real-Time Imaging System (ARTIS).
In addition the Pathfinder aircraft has been used to access its commercial applicability in imaging missions to study crop damage and forest fires, and as telecommunication relays for establishing communication networks in emergency recovery and relief projects.
The Pathfinder aircraft has attracted the attention of many commercial manufacturers and investors over the period of time, and it is expected that we may soon see the widespread application of solar powered aircrafts for commercial purposes.
Siege, M., Moore, R., Watson, C., Adamski, J., & Le, J. (2016). Pathfinder VI Experimental Payload: Desna.
Norisam, R., Baker, J. S., Buggey, T., & Wright, K. (2015). P4_1 The Feasibility of Commercial Solar Powered Flight. Physics Special Topics, 14(1).