Cal State L.A.'S Fuel-Cell Plane Passes Key Flight Test
100 Feet Up For 2 Minutes, 480-Watt Craft Carries 28-Pound Payload
In a Kitty Hawk moment on an airstrip named for the first spacecraft to land on the moon, this morning an unmanned airplane with an 18-foot wing span made history by demonstrating that fuel cells can be used to power flight.
Developed by a team of students at California State University, Los Angeles's Multidisciplinary Flight Dynamics and Control Laboratory, the plane took off at the Apollo XI Radio Control (RC) Airfield in Van Nuys around 7:30 a.m.
According to Christopher Herwerth, the Cal State L.A. graduate student in mechanical engineering who leads the team, "The fuel cell performed very well, yielding 480 watts of maximum sustained power that turned a 20-inch propeller. The UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) took off slowly but climbed steadily, reaching an altitude of 100 feet."
Another student, Jay Replogle, piloted the plane by remote control.
"Jay had the UAV circle the airfield twice during the two-minute flight," said Herwerth. "There was a slight crosswind during landing, but the well-balanced aircraft glided gracefully through its landing pattern"-a moment accompanied by a mix of cheers and speechlessness.
With the touchdown, the Cal State L.A. team, comprising roughly a half-dozen students, became the first university crew west of the Mississippi-and the second overall-to achieve successful flight powered by fuel cells. (The other was Georgia Institute of Technology, which-unlike Cal State L.A.-offers doctoral programs.) According to Herwerth, only two other groups have achieved public flights of such craft: AeroVironment, a Simi Valley-based aerospace company; and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory.
Shortly before the flight, the team decided to add an extra pound of weight to the craft in the form of a small video camera, battery and transmitter, bringing its total to 28.5 pounds.
"The decision was difficult," said Herwerth. "The heavier the aircraft, the more difficult it is to take off. We were happy that we included the camera because the major purpose for a UAV is to carry some kind of payload."
One of the project's long-term goals is to develop an unmanned aircraft that can survey environments without polluting them. (The fuel cells are fed by hydrogen and release only pure water as an emission.)
The project receives support from NASA's Dryden Flight Research office at Edwards Air Force Base and the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research.
Four other Cal State L.A. students on the UAV research team assisted today's flight: Charles Chiang, Alan Ko, Sahar Mehrzad and Shigeru Matsuyama. Three Cal State L.A. mechanical engineering professors-Maj Dean Mirmirani, Chivey Wu and Darrell Guillaume-supervise the Multidisciplinary Flight Dynamics and Control Laboratory and serve as project advisors.
Mirmirani, who chairs the university's mechanical engineering department, said the flight is likely the last for the plane, which may be more valuable as a piece of history, being seen in museums and outreach displays.
"We want to move on," said Mirmirani. "This was a technology demonstrator. The next project will be using the technology for a specific mission. This has served its purpose-to demonstrate that a fuel cell can power flight-and there's no use in risking a crash in another flight. We'd like to preserve, to share it."
Details about the Multidisciplinary Flight Dynamics and Control Laboratory and the fuel-cell plane are available at http://www.calstatela.edu/centers/mfdclab.
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