Wind energy is a fast growing industry, with wind farms spreading throughout the world. Today's wind turbines do a pretty good job of generating energy but for the past few years, emerging wind energy technology has focused on creating devices that can go much higher in the air, 2,000 feet or higher, to harness the faster moving wind there. These airborne devices could potentially generate up to 27 times the amount of energy of current turbines.
According to NASA, there are two main issues with these new airborne systems. One is that a lot of the devices that have been developed don't have very good aerodynamics because the companies are held to tight deadlines to get a product out by their investors. The other problem is that the companies that have developed autonomous systems, ones that can "fly" themselves at these great heights and in far-off places like way offshore, have used expensive onboard electronics and flight control systems similar to commercial aircraft.
That's where NASA comes in. The agency wants to develop a system with better aerodynamics and that's capable of autonomous flight through simpler, cheaper methods.
"Here at NASA, we have the luxury of focusing very specifically on problems and not have to worry about getting a commercial product fielded by a certain date," said David North,an engineer at NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia.
In March, NASA debuted the result of that focus: an autonomous tethered kite that was monitored, essentially, by a cheap digital webcam tied into a laptop on the ground that tracked the motion of the kite. The software that controlled it all was much like the Microsoft Kinect system.
"It's pattern recognition software," North said. "The software is basically determining where the kite is, how the kite is oriented and how fast the kite is going, and using all that data to feed into the flight-control system."
The prototype that NASA built only has a wingspan of 10 feet, but these devices could potentially have wingspans equal to Boeing 747s. The researchers have only tested the prototype in lower altitudes, but they're working on a contract to test the technology at 2,000 feet for extended periods of time over the agency's restricted airspace in Wallops Island, Virginia.