A Giant Stick For Mankind

A WEIRD, SOFTLY HUMMING OBJECT FLEW OVER EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE in Southern California last month. It bore absolutely no resemblance to a flying saucer, though. It looked like a flying yardstick--a really big yardstick.

With a wingspan wider than a Boeing 747, the 206-foot Centurion flying wing has 14 battery-powered engines that will take it to the edge of space. In coming tests, the pilotless Centurion will climb to ever-loftier heights, perhaps reaching 100,000 feet, or 19 miles, by 2000. There, the robot plane will loaf along at 15 to 20 mph, conducting atmospheric tests for NASA, with no exhaust fumes from jets to foul the results.

A next-generation model called Helios will be plastered with solar cells. They will recharge the batteries so the plane can stay up indefinitely. The solar cells could also power other jobs, such as relaying telecom signals. AeroVironment Inc. in Monrovia, Calif., which built the Centurion for NASA, sees a bright future for robot planes doing such chores--at 10% the cost of a spacecraft.

Other companies sense the same opportunities. Aurora Flight Sciences in Manassas, Va., General Atomics Aeronautical Systems in San Diego, Calif., and Scaled Composites in Mojave, Calif., are also developing high-flying robots. And Japan's Posts & Telecommunications Ministry recently unveiled a scheme for a telecom network using dirigibles floating at 12-mile altitudes.