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Solair Altius unmanned aerial vehicle, eyes-on (video)

Brian Heater

It could just be us, but we tend to dwell on some fairly negative connotations when we hear the phrase "unmanned aerial vehicle" -- after all, the lion's share of media attention devoted to devices in that category tend to focus on military applications. Not surprisingly, the creators of the Solair Altius being strung from the rafters of the Artistan's Asylum hackerspace in Somerville, Massachusetts has far more peaceful intentions when they developed the plane.

Gallery: Solair hands-on | 15 Photos

We had the chance to checkout the vehicle during our visit to the space yesterday. The plane's designers had clearly been hard at work on the thing, as it was cracked wide open when we stopped by. Sadly, that meant that we weren't able to actually see the Altius take to the skies above New England, and while someone from the Engadget Show crew asked whether we could see the craft fly around the 30,000 square foot building, its massive 18-foot wingspan pretty much ruled out that possibility -- the plane's wings are so large, in fact, that its creators had to build a custom cubicle in order to fit it into their fairly cramped workspace.

The plane has seen some action, however, taking to the skies several times, with three or four "good" fights thus far, the most recent of which occurred four days ago. You can check out a recent flight in the above video, shot with a GoPro attached via a custom case designed by the Altius's creators. At present, the plane is being operated with a remote control, though its creators are looking to make the whole thing a bit more autonomous (though not completely so), allowing it to be piloted remotely from a PC by users with no flying experience.

Solair solarpowered drone handson

As evidenced on our visit, the plane can be pulled apart, making it easier to transport. Its carbon fiber body is largely empty, with a few circuit boards (including an Arduino) inside, meaning that it could potentially be used to store material like medicine that need to be shipped to remote areas. Other applications include weather surveys, scientific research, power line monitoring and animal surveying in place like Yellowstone.

Solair solarpowered drone handson

Ultimately, its creators are looking to create a craft that can fly for several days at a time, powered by solar panels, all while requiring minimal remote interaction. The Altius in its present state cost around $10,000 to construct, begun as a student project at Princeton and funded by an angel investor.

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