A drone crossing the ocean for the Pacific Drone Challenge has become the new objective. No fuel stops, no pilots.
A new contest will aim to push the limits of commercial drone flight. The Pacific Drone Challenge hopes to offer a modern response to Charles Lindbergh by asking who can make the first non-stop, un-refueled and unmanned flight from Japan to California.
About the Pacific Drone Challenge
Compared to, say, the Google Lunar X Prize, with its splashy films and $30 million (about R400 million) payday, the Pacific Drone Challenge is currently a shoestring affair, more a rallying cry than a formal race. The challenge is open to all takers, no forms needed. Some of the event’s sponsorship comes from competitive teams like the Japanese iRobotics and the American Sabrewing Aircraft Company.
There’s also no prize money. The current “teams and their sponsors are doing it for historical reasons,” the Challenge says on its website.
We’ve been working on a heavy-lift, mid-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aircraft system for several years,” says Ed De Reyes, the Chief Operating Officer of Sabrewing Aircraft, in a press release. “This race gives us the ability to demonstrate our system…and to make some history as well.”
The Pacific Challenge isn’t the only flight endurance test in recent years. The Solar Impulse 2 took a five-day flight around the world, with two pilots flying the solar plane for over 500 hours. But there are additional complications that make the Pacific Challenge unique.
“The difference between what we are doing and what has been done before is significant,” De Reyes says. “We are flying 4,500 miles (8 300 kilometers), over open-ocean, without a pilot on board, for 45 to 50 hours. We are flying that distance for that amount of time on a fraction of the size and weight of other similar aircraft, and at a fraction of the cost.”
There are myriad complications in such a plan. Chief among them is power: Sabrewing expects the journey to last 45 to 50 hours. For comparison, the top-of-the-line DJI Phantom 4 Pro brags about a battery life of half an hour. The Sabrewing drone will be a fixed-wing quad-rotor drone with 24 electric engines. Hopes are that it will be enough to cover 8 800 kilometers. There will also need to be a guidance system to adjust for small birds and other unexpected factors in the sky.
iRobotics, the Japanese competitor, says its drone will be somewhere in the middle ground between casual and heavy duty drones. These include the drones that you might see in a park and the ones used by the likes of Facebook on its mission to spread the Internet. “Our drone concept is in many ways between the two extremes,” CEO Yoshiyasu Ando, told Red Bull earlier this year.
“We can’t reveal the exact details,” says Kazunori Saito, iRobitics CFO, in the same interview, “but our drone is under rapid development and the issue of battery power is one we see being solved in the near future by a Japanese company we’re collaborating with. That said, we need competition to make it happen. Like in sports, competition in technology helps to push you on, making both you and your competitors better.”
Sabrewing agrees. “Competitions have always proven the old saying that necessity is the mother of invention,”De Reyes says. “Just as Lindbergh proved that flying non-stop across the Atlantic was feasible for mail and passenger aircraft, we’ll be proving that we can do the same thing with an aircraft that doesn’t have a pilot aboard.”