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SunLight Eagle soars at NMSU's Flight Test Center

The Physical Science Laboratory of New Mexico State University announced that its Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Test Center successfully hosted the first flight last month of a solar-powered unmanned aircraft in the National Airspace System.



The New Mexico State University Physical Science Laboratory's Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Test Center successfully hosted the first flight last month of a solar-powered unmanned aircraft in the National Airspace System. The SunLight Eagle, flown by Aurora Flight Sciences Corporation of Manassas, Va., has a wingspan of 114 feet, yet weighed only 173 pounds at liftoff.(Photo provided)

The Flight Test Center, in coordination with the Federal Aviation Administration, provides the only national airspace approved for flight tests of unmanned aircraft.

"The FTC is a 15,000-square-mile national resource for developers of unmanned aircraft," said FTC Director Steve Hottman. "We are pleased to be a part of the historic SunLight Eagle test flights."

The SunLight Eagle, flown by Aurora Flight Sciences Corporation of Manassas, Va., was originally powered with bicycle-like pedals and still holds four world records for human-powered flight. For its two test flights at Las Cruces International Airport, the pedals were replaced with solar panels, an electric motor, a high-performance battery, and a flight control system.

"This flight was an intermediate step to the ultimate goal of flying an unmanned aircraft autonomously at altitudes above 50,000 feet for several days," said Robyn Allen, Aurora program manager.

Although the SunLight Eagle has a wingspan of 114 feet, it weighed only 173 pounds at liftoff.

"Because of the unique construction of the SunLight Eagle," said Dennis Zaklan, FTC manager for the SunLight Eagle project, "we were hoping for a crosswind under two knots. It was a perfect morning with only a hint of a breeze that allowed us to conduct the flight safely. The success of the flights was made possible by excellent teamwork between Aurora, NMSU, and Las Cruces Airport staff."

The SunLight Eagle may return soon to Las Cruces, once it is fitted with equipment that allows it to fly longer at higher altitude. "We hope to be back at NMSU by late summer," Allen said.