Mini-chopper's Everest flight is a world first

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 September, 2009, 12:00am

In a world first, a miniature helicopter has made an unmanned survey flight around Mount Everest, getting a bird's-eye view of towering glaciers and cavernous canyons.

The aircraft was developed by the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

The mission leader was Professor Li Zexiang, from the university's Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, assisted by postgraduate student Frank Wang Tao. Li said the mission had 'set a milestone in the history of unmanned aviation and in the surveying and protection of high-altitude environments'.

It swooped over lakes, glaciers and a forest during test flights in extreme weather in June, hovering about Everest's freezing flanks at 6,000 metres, it remained steady despite the gusting winds.

'It was indescribable,' said Li, who added that HK$1 million was spent on the project and it took four years of research.

'We believe the success of these test flights will pave the way for the further use of unmanned helicopters in the surveying and monitoring of high-altitude environments, helping protect highland ecology.'

The helicopter is two metres long and weighs about 10kg.

It is equipped with a global positioning system and can fly on a pre-programmed flight path or receive commands from a remote console. It takes photographs and videos, and sends instant signals to the control station. It can fly for an hour at 70km/h on battery power. Propelled by diesel, it covers a much wider area.

Wang said although satellites could do the same tasks, this helicopter came out in front with its real-time photos and videos, which some satellites need years to capture and send back to earth.

He said the helicopters cost from thousands to tens of thousands of dollars, depending on specifications. More than 200 have been sold since he started selling them two years ago, including to film companies that wanted aerial footage.

Upcoming tasks include landing on the world's highest mountain at the 8,850-metre-high peak and monitoring the migration of animals such as Tibetan antelopes.