Macs the 'brain' of unmanned plane

Back in August MacCentral reported that Helios, the world's first unmanned plane intended as a telecom tower in the sky, has a Mac for its "brain." Now an Apple SciTech article provides some details.

Helios, an aircraft resembling a giant wing, was built with funding and research help from NASA, and has flown successfully. Backers claim its transmission services will be far cheaper than satellites and more efficient than wireless towers.

Helios has a wingspan of 247 feet, but it's just six feet high and weighs only 1,850 pounds, which allows it to take off at just 30 mph. It flies on the edge of Earth's atmosphere, 100,000 feet high. Helios' 14 electric motors run on solar power generated by 65,000 solar cells by day, and on fuel cells energized by solar power by night (it uses about the same amount of juice as 20 hair dryers). And Helios' "brain" is a Mac that would guide it back to Earth after its trip aloft, which will last six months or longer. At an anticipated cost of US$10 million each, Helios-type aircraft will be far cheaper than conventional communications satellites, which cost about $200 million a pop, according to the article.

AeroVironment built the Helios, as well as the Gossamer series of human-powered aircraft and the Solar Challenger, the first human-piloted airplane to fly from France to England in 1981 powered only by the sun. Since 1984, AeroVironment has used Macintosh computers to help engineer its vehicles.

On the ground, one pilot controls the plane and four engineers monitor and analyze data using Power Macs. The software used for the pilot display was crafted using a Mac and CodeWarrior, but a PC was used for the engineering display. Ray Morgan, former VP of AeroVironment's Design and Development Center and project leader for Helios, and his team discovered it was easier to port the PC software over to the Mac, however.

"That's when we started seeing the real value of the Mac," Morgan told Apple. "From then on, we were using Macs for design, engineering, and data collection. When you're doing one-offs, most of your time is in development. You want tools that save you time, which means it's got to be easy to learn, easy to modify, easy to use, available, and reliable. The Mac does all that."

Power Macs are used to display flight instruments and a moving map with weather info; the flight engineer also monitors the plane's systems and component temperatures from a Power Mac. Mission planning engineers, stability and control engineers likewise depend on Apple hardware. PowerBook G4s are used to examine the plane's unusual aerolastic and aerodynamic behavior (it has a very flexible structure).

The company is current crafting an energy storage system that will hopefully enable Helios to spend up to 96 hours aloft at about 50,000 feet by the year 2003. To that end, Graham Gyatt, who designed and developed most of the software for the systems used to operate the aircraft, and his team are developing another ground control station for the energy storage -- the system uses Macs and Apple Cinema Displays, of course.

Gyatt told Apple he's eager to upgrade the Helios systems and software to Mac OS X, calling it "a pleasure to use." He also lauds Cocoa, Apple's development environment for Mac OS X. "It's a very elegant, object-oriented system that allows you to focus on writing just the code that is specific to your application," said Gyatt.

"Maybe this is a personal thing, but I think that the excellence and creativity that characterizes Apple's products inspires the people who use them to try to create something equally great in their own work," Gyatt told Apple. "I've always felt that when I use Macs."

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