Around 4,500 miles (7,300 km) separate the Pacific coasts of Japan and Silicon Valley, a distance beyond the reach of current non-military drones. But a new event called the Pacific Drone Challenge has thrown down the gauntlet to those in the business of driving the technology forward, tasking competing teams with making the massive crossing using an unmanned aircraft without stopping to re-fuel.
Just like other significant water crossings throughout aviation history, like Charles Lindbergh's non-stop journey from New York to Paris in 1927 and the more recent efforts from the Solar Impulse 2, it is hoped the Pacific Drone Challenge will demonstrate what is possible when it comes to new breeds of aircraft, in this case unmanned drones.
Last year a drone made a historic first crossing over the English Channel in a 72-minute voyage. The vehicle used for that particular trip was a customized quadcopter, similar in design to those used for recreational activities like photography and drone racing.
But drones with fixed wings can offer much greater range. Indeed, Facebook says its massive Aquila drone will eventually fly for 90 days at a time. And while the Pacific Drone Challenge doesn't specifically state that it must, the winning drone will likely feature a fixed-wing as part of its design.
One of the teams already signed up for the challenge, Silicon Valley's Sabrewing Aircraft Company, is building a fixed-wing quad-rotor drone designed to take off from a standard runway and use 24 electric motors to cover as much as 8,800 km (5,500 mi). The company expects the journey across the Pacific to take 45 to 50 hours.
"We've been working on a heavy-lift, mid-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aircraft system for several years," said Ed De Reyes, the Chief Operating Officer of Sabrewing Aircraft. "This race gives us the ability to demonstrate our system … and to make some history as well."
Sabrewing Aircraft will be pitting its technology against that of Japanese company iRobotics, which is holding its cards a little closer to its chest. As it stands, those two are the only competing teams, although the competition is open to anyone and there is no deadline, the winner will simply be anybody who can make the crossing first.
"Competitions have always proven the old saying that necessity is the mother of invention," said De Reyes. "In this instance, the object is not only to show what our air vehicle can do, but to then re-use all the technology that we've developed to demonstrate how long-range, heavy-cargo deliveries can be made autonomously. Just as Lindbergh proved that flying non-stop across the Atlantic was feasible for mail and passenger aircraft, we'll be proving that we can do the same thing with an aircraft that doesn't have a pilot aboard."