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The solar-power AtlantikSolar unmanned aircraft system (UAS) last month demonstrated its ability to assist in search-and-rescue (SAR) missions associated with the refugee crisis occurring in the Mediterranean.

AtlantikSolar is an aerial vehicles project at the Autonomous Systems Lab in the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich. The lab is part of the Institute of Robotics and Intelligent Systems which creates robots and intelligent systems designed to autonomously operate in complex and diverse environments.

A year after completing an 81-hour mission that established an endurance record for UAS under 110 pounds, the AtlantikSolar successfully demonstrated the first-ever fully-autonomous solar-powered perpetual flight with a significant payload. The aircraft carried a color and thermal camera during the simulated 26-hour SAR mission.

Philipp Oettershagen, research assistant at the Autonomous Systems Lab said: “The infrared camera proved to be a vital sensing tool. While flying in total darkness, we could still use its images to easily detect the simulated victims that required help”.

Using solar-charged batteries, the AtlantikSolar was able to operate its thermal camera throughout the night to spot potential victims.

“In the end, after a full-night search-and-rescue mission, the aircraft had a remaining battery state of charge of 26 percent—an excellent result and the first time that a small-scale solar powered UAV has crossed the night with such significant sensing payload,” Oettershagen added.

According to UASmagazine.com, future flights planned for European research projects will include SAR and border protection flights along the coasts of Norway and Italy.

Oettershagen explained that next year the focus for the AtlantikSolar will be climate research. During the summer, the team plans to deploy AtlantikSolar on a six-week mission to Greenland to perform multi-day continuous aerial monitoring of the Arctic glaciers. The goal is for AtlantikSolar to provide aerial imagery over thousands of kilometers above the glaciers and waters of the Atlantic Ocean.