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Tuesday, 22 May, 2001, 12:34 GMT 13:34 UK
Robotic plane aids polar research
The Aerosonde Aerosonde Robotic Aircraft
The plane can carry scientific instruments
Scientists in the United States have unveiled a new tool for research in the Arctic: a robotic plane that can swoop beneath the clouds and gather scientific data.

The unmanned aircraft could also prove useful for helping carry out search-and-rescue operations in dangerous weather conditions.

The Aerosonde Aerosonde Robotic Aircraft
The plane can remain airborne for 24 hours
Test flights were carried out in Alaska last month, when the plane carried an instrument that measured the surface temperature of sea ice.

Small civilian aircraft are already used for scientific studies in the Arctic. However, the new pilotless planes have the advantage that they can fly in very poor weather conditions and can fly for up to 24 hours without stopping to refuel.

The craft, which is known as the Aerosonde, is made by Aerosonde Ltd and Aerosonde North America.

Weighing just 13.5 kilograms (29 pounds), it can fly for more than 2,400 kilometres (1,500 miles) on about four litres (a gallon) of fuel.

Field work

The plane, which can be customised to carry different types of scientific instruments, has a number of potential uses, including the collection of climate data, mapping the movement of wildlife, and helping in search-and-rescue operations.

A research team from the University of Colorado at Boulder tested the plane at Barrow, Alaska, in April.

Principal investigator Judith Curry said that although the plane needed further refinement to help it cope with very low temperatures, it should be a practical alternative to existing planes for conducting Arctic research.

"[The Aerosonde] has the potential to be a much cheaper and safer alternative to conduct some very important field work in the Arctic," she said.

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