The first flight of a large aircraft to be powered by electric fuel cells began with a takeoff at 8:43 a.m. HST today from the Hawaiian island of Kauai. The Helios Prototype flying wing, built by AeroVironment, Inc., of Monrovia, Calif., as part of NASA's Environmental Research Aircraft and Sensor Technology (ERAST) program, used solar panels to power its 10 electric motors for takeoff and during daylight portions of its planned 20-hour shakedown flight. As sunlight diminishes, Helios will switch to a fuel cell system to continue flight into the night.
The takeoff set the stage for a two-day Helios endurance flight in the stratosphere planned for mid-July. The Helios wing, spanning 247 feet and weighing about 2,400 pounds, is giving NASA and industry engineers confidence that remotely piloted aircraft will be able to stay aloft for weeks at a time, providing environmental monitoring capabilities and telecommunications relay services.
Helios is an all-electric airplane. In addition to being non-polluting, Helios can fly above storms, and use the power of the sun to stay aloft during daylight. Key to the success of this type of aircraft is the ability to fly in darkness, using fuel cells when sunlight cannot furnish energy.
Helios flew over the Navy's Pacific Missile Range Facility where favorable sun exposure and test ranges closed to other air traffic benefited the NASA research effort. In 2003 the aircraft was lost to a crash.