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Shape-shifting plane to aid maritime rescues

Image: Shape-shift plane
Image courtesy Discovery News
/ Source: Discovery Channel

Gilligan might have gotten off that island a lot sooner if shape-shifting robot planes had been around.

A European research project, coordinated by engineers in Cyprus, is focused on building a small and inexpensive unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that will help cut the human risk and cost of search-and-rescue missions on the high seas.

The project is part of the European Organization for the Safety of Air Navigation and a main goal is to reduce risks that oftentimes crop when the weather turns bad. Wind and high waves make it a major challenge for helicopter and fixed wing plane crews to save people at sea. Tragically, some rescuers die while conducting dangerous missions.

Using UAVs — or search-and-rescue snake robots on land — means there is less risk for humans to get injured in the response to a disaster.

Unlike most helicopters and airplanes, the UAVs use shape-changing trim tabs, the small surfaces connected to the trailing edge of larger surfaces on planes. For example, you might have noticed that jet airliners have hinged pieces of metal — called ailerons — along the edges of their wings. That's a trim tab. There are similar pieces on the tail fin, too. These all help the pilot control the plane's flight.

On the UAV, the trim tabs vibrate to improve flight stability in gusting winds. In fact, the trim tabs reduced loads by as much 25 percent, allowing the UAV to fly in severe weather. On-board sensors monitor stability and provide constant feedback to the ailerons.

Even without the special trim tabs, the plane is more stable than other aircraft because it has a uniquely designed profile optimized for high lift at low speeds. And it's able to fly for almost five hours with a 90-pound payload.

Researchers are still wrapping up testing on the island of Cyprus, but their UAV has flown steady at crosswinds of up to 60 mph.

And the best part? Even Gilligan can't mess up these UAVs.