JETLINERS FERRY PASSENGERS at 30,000-plus feet. But for monitoring weather or sampling atmospheric pollution, aerospace mavens envision a whole new type of high-flying aircraft. Backed by NASA, a squadron of companies led by AeroVironment Inc. of Monrovia, Calif., is testing unmanned, battery-powered planes that will one day glide two to three times higher than airliners, and even park themselves over hurricanes to help weathermen sharpen their storm predictions.
In late summer, over California's El Mirage dry lakebed, AeroVironment tested the latest scale model of a craft called Centurion (picture). It's a feathery, 62.5-foot "flying wing" made of carbon fiber that weighs just 25 pounds. Batteries power 12 evenly spaced propellers for up to an hour at a stretch. Next summer, the company hopes to launch the full-scale Centurion, with an altitude goal of 100,000 feet. Its 210-foot wingspan rivals that of a Boeing 747.
After that, the next big leap will be a flying wing called Helios, to be launched in 2001. It will run on solar batteries, storing extra energy during the day in fuel cells and consuming it at night. That should make possible the ultimate dream--what Centurion project manager Rik D. Meininger calls "eternal flight."