Thursday, May 10, 2001

The solar-powered Pathfinder-Plus, seen in a 1998 photo,
was developed by NASA Dryden Flight Research Center.
Stanley Herwitz, a professor at Clark University in
Worcester, Mass., developed specialized optics for
the unmanned plane that is being tested in coffee
management. The plane has a wingspan of 247 feet
and can carry a variety of different cameras.

Kauai Coffee to
use unmanned solar
plane to check fields

The aircraft, provided by a
NASA grant, will use cameras to
determine the best place to harvest

By Russ Lynch

A unmanned, solar-powered aircraft will help Kauai Coffee Co. figure out which of its 3,400 acres to harvest next.

The craft can also perform a wide variety of other tasks, turning agriculture into high-tech science, says Frank Kiger, vice president and general manager of the Alexander & Baldwin Inc.-owned coffee plantation.

Pathfinder-Plus, the latest development by Monrovia, Calif.-headquartered AeroVironment Inc., has a wingspan of 247 feet and is powered by electric motors deriving their energy only from the sun.

"It holds the absolute world record for altitude in level flight, 80,201 feet," said Martyn Towley, a spokesman for the plane's creator.

The plane can carry a variety of different cameras, depending upon its purpose. In the case of Kauai Coffee, a NASA grant to a research team at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., is putting it to work in coffee management.

Kiger said he prefers to call it an "aerial platform" rather than an aircraft, since it has many uses but none of them involve traditional aircraft applications such as carrying passengers or freight.

Professor Stan Herwitz at Clark developed specialized optics for the process and they have been tested occasionally at Kauai Coffee over the past three years, using the original Pathfinder, which can fly only to about 30,000 feet, Kiger said.

"The object is to scan our 3,400 acres and figure out what field to harvest next," he said. It is a difficult process because the beans themselves are buried under foliage, and that's where the special optics and video downloads come in, Kiger said.

"The ultimate goal is to be able to determine the degree of ripeness throughout the orchard and download that information online in actual visuals from the unit itself," Kiger said. Tests later this year will determine how well that works but Kauai Coffee's Kiger said he is already convinced of some of the capabilities.

Experience so far has shown that these high-flying platforms, designed to move slowly and stay up for hours, can do real practical work, he said.

"It can show us areas within an orchard that might have an irrigation problem, not visible from the ground," he said.

It can show weed infestations and other field problems that would be hard to spot otherwise, he said. "It has real-life applications right now," Kiger said.

Kauai Coffee, which operates near Koloa on the southwest side of Kauai, has the good fortune of open skies and virtually no air traffic, advantages for the scientific flights.

In a news release from its Washington, D.C., headquarters, NASA said the use of the "uninhabited aerial vehicle, or UAV" will aid the coffee business by providing growers with color images of crops.

"From this information the growers will know, down to the day, the best time for harvesting the beans, bringing the best flavor to consumers," NASA said.

"Part of NASA's UAV-based science demonstration program, these flights will show the ability of this type of aircraft to carry Earth-viewing scientific payloads in long-duration missions at altitudes exceeding the endurance of a pilot in a traditional aircraft," NASA said.

AeroVironment has a lot of experience in unmanned aircraft. One of its creations, launched in 1999, is a six-inch wide midget electric-motor aircraft called the Black Widow that can fly for nearly half an hour at up to 43 miles an hour, sending back continuous video from its own tiny camera.

AeroVironment's Towley said the goal of the Pathfinder program and its sister Helios program is to reach 100,000 feet in unmanned, solar-electric flight this year and next year, sustained flight for four days and four nights, gathering power from solar cells on the wings during the day and storing it a fuel cell to run the propellers at night.

E-mail to Business Editor

Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Do It Electric!]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]

© 2001 Honolulu Star-Bulletin