Communication support in disaster zones

In the event of a natural disaster that disrupts phone and Internet systems over a wide area, autonomous aircraft could potentially hover over affected regions, carrying communications payloads that provide temporary telecommunications coverage to those in need.

However, such unpiloted aerial vehicles, or UAVs, are often expensive to operate, and can only remain in the air for a day or two, as is the case with most autonomous surveillance aircraft operated by the U.S. Air Force. Providing adequate and persistent coverage would require a relay of multiple aircraft, landing and refueling around the clock, with operational costs of thousands of dollars per hour, per vehicle.

Now a team of MIT engineers has come up with a much less expensive UAV design that can hover for longer durations to provide wide-ranging communications support. The researchers designed, built, and tested a UAV resembling a thin glider with a 24-foot wingspan. The vehicle can carry 10 to 20 pounds of communications equipment while flying at an altitude of 15,000 feet. Weighing in at just under 150 pounds, the vehicle is powered by a 5-horsepower gasoline engine and can keep itself aloft for more than five days — longer than any gasoline-powered autonomous aircraft has remained in flight, the researchers say.

The team is presenting its results this week at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Conference in Denver, Colorado. The team was led by R. John Hansman, the T. Wilson Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics; and Warren Hoburg, the Boeing Assistant Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Hansman and Hoburg are co-instructors for MIT’s Beaver Works project, a student research collaboration between MIT and the MIT Lincoln Laboratory.

A solar no-go

Hansman and Hoburg worked with MIT students to design a long-duration UAV as part of a Beaver Works capstone project — typically a two- or three-semester course that allows MIT students to design a vehicle that meets certain mission specifications, and to build and test their design.

In the spring of 2016, the U.S. Air Force approached the Beaver Works collaboration with an idea for designing a long-duration UAV powered by solar energy. The thought at the time was that an aircraft, fueled by the sun, could potentially remain in flight indefinitely. Others, including Google, have experimented with this concept,  designing solar-powered, high-altitude aircraft to deliver continuous internet access to rural and remote parts of Africa.

But when the team looked into the idea and analyzed the problem from multiple engineering angles, they found that solar power — at least for long-duration emergency response — was not the way to go.