Can a drone fly across the pacific?

Will 2018 be the year that an unmanned drone flies all the way across the Pacific Ocean? That’s the question the Pacific Drone Challenge seeks to answer. The new competition challenges pilots and scientists around the world to fly a UAV from Japan to the United States.


The Pacific Drone Challenge

From KDE

The requirements are simple: fly from Japan to the Silicon Valley in California on a nonstop, unfueled, and unmanned drone mission.

The contest is open to participants around the world. There is no deadline; the winner will be the first team to successfully take off from Japan and land safely in Sunnyvale, California.


The Pacific Drone Challenge seems to post a “what if” question more than a formal competition at this time. The 4,500 distance extends well beyond the reach of current non-military drones, and the competition (as of yet) has no prize. While the Google Lunar X competition encouraging contenders to fly to the moon may seem more difficult a feat, it’s also backed by a $25 million grand prize and a $5 million prize for second place, as well other million-dollar prizes. So far the Pacific Drone Challenge is exclusively sponsored by competing teams, including Japanese tech company iRobotics and American aircraft company Sabrewing.

The Pacific Drone Challenge’s website states that the teams and their sponsors are entering the event for historical reasons, not the promise of fortune, stating, “Just as Charles Lindbergh's flew from New York to Paris in 1927 to demonstrate airplanes could fly nonstop across the Atlantic, the Pacific Drone Challenge will demonstrate the capabilities of unmanned aircraft to fly in similar circumstances [including] weather [and] distance.”


Unlike Lindbergh, however, flying drones across an ocean presents its own unique challenges. There will be no pilot on board, and the flight is expected to take a non-military drone between 45 and 50 hours. The typical hobby drone has a battery that lasts just under half an hour, and the challenge calls for all flights to be “unrefueled and nonstop.”


Being able to fly a non-military drone 4,500 miles has its benefits if a contender successfully completes the mission. At a fraction of the size and weight of other aircrafts, drones are significantly cheaper to fly long distances.

In the word of Vonnegut, “We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” The competition opens a world of possibilities for tech in 2018, and we can’t wait to see what’s coming!

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Jan 16, 2018, 02:22 PM
Registered User
Bill Glover's Avatar
Skimming the rules I don't see anything to stop you using an off the shelf military/commercial UAV for this:

The prize is $25 million ... can you buy one for less than that?
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Jan 16, 2018, 02:35 PM
fly by night
BCSaltchucker's Avatar
only a few guys have made it 100km, let alone 1000km, 5,000km

not really within reach at all. This guy tried very hard, but I think the project would need to be scaled up to hundred foot wingspan

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Jan 16, 2018, 02:51 PM
A man with too many toys
Reminds me of a few years ago before I retired and worked at Edwards. The Global Hawk flew from California to Australia and back.


On 24 April 2001, a Global Hawk flew non-stop from Edwards in the US to RAAF Base Edinburgh in Australia, making history by being the first pilotless aircraft to cross the Pacific Ocean. The flight took 22 hours, and set a world record for absolute distance flown by a UAV, 13,219.86 kilometers (8,214.44 mi).

On 22 March 2008, a Global Hawk set the endurance record for full-scale, operational unmanned aircraft UAVs by flying for 33.1 hours at altitudes up to 60,000 feet over Edwards Air Force Base.

From its first flight in 1998 to 9 September 2013, the combined Global Hawk fleet flew 100,000 hours. 88 percent of flights were conducted by USAF RQ-4s, while the remaining hours were flown by NASA Global Hawks, the EuroHawk, the Navy BAMS demonstrator, and the MQ-4C Triton. Approximately 75 percent of flights were in combat zones; RQ-4s flew in operations over Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya; and supported disaster response efforts in Haiti, Japan, and California.

From 10–16 September 2014, the RQ-4 fleet flew a total of 781 hours, the most hours flown by the type during a single week. 87 percent of flights were made by USAF RQ-4s, with the rest flown by the Navy BAMS-D and NASA hurricane research aircraft.

The longest Global Hawk combat sortie lasted 32.5 hours."

Jan 16, 2018, 03:29 PM
Registered User
Hill went across the atlantic with a hand launched balsa plane 15+ years ago. Surely the tech now would make this easy as pie ?
Jan 16, 2018, 04:17 PM
Registered User
Hill did it with an Internal Combustion Engine. Trick to do it with electric is get a super efficient plane large enough to carry the necessary battery. Navigation is a piece of cake these days with GPS. You would need a lot of luck too. Hill did not get it done the first time he tried if I recall.
Jan 16, 2018, 05:00 PM
Registered User
Daemon's Avatar
No requirement that it be electric, but if it was it would need to also be solar powered.
There's no battery that'll keep a plane in the air for nearly 9000km and likely 70-80 hours.
Something like the Solar Impulse 2 would likely be the best design and by
eliminating the support systems for a pilot, can reduce weight and drag and
make it significantly smaller, although it would still likely be an enormous plane.

Gasoline still has more than 10x the effective energy density (power produced
per weight, or volume) of LiIon packs though which means if you could design an
electric plane that flies 900km on a single charge, you could replace the battery
system with gasoline and an efficient gas engine and fly 9000km using
the same airframe.

The main challenge I see in the rules is the simply the overwhelming bureaucracy
of having to certify the aircraft in both Japan and US, obtaining flight plans, insurance
and permission at both ends.. etc.. Being unmanned makes everything that much harder.
I almost wonder if the true goal of the competition is just to pioneer a path through
the regulatory nightmare, for future commercial endeavors. Technically
the military has already met the technical challenge, but they don't have to follow
the FAA's rules.
Jan 16, 2018, 06:44 PM
Registered User
kuiperJ's Avatar
The atlantic has been done at 1888 miles on just a little 1.8 meter wingspan airplane (3 quarts of fuel and 38 hours).

Pacific ocean (5400 miles) on maybe a 3 meter plane seems like it would be doable.

I think ultimately this is going to be a "are you good at math" challenge and less of a challenge of engineering or piloting skill.
Last edited by kuiperJ; Jan 16, 2018 at 06:58 PM.
Jan 16, 2018, 09:47 PM
Registered User
I am amazed that more people don't know about the flight across the Atlantic. It was an amazing feat The gas engine was a specially modified model airplane engine that was optimized for economy and reliability In my opinion the engine was the key ingredient for success. The autopilot and GPS were important as well, but didn't really push the technology barrier at the time. The airplane itself was a very conventional and used standard construction techniques.

The people involved were very much scientist and approached the project in a professional manner.
Jan 16, 2018, 10:24 PM
We are not men, we are DEVO 7e
xanuser's Avatar
why do we have to fly upwind the whole way?

does it count if we go from japan to CA?
Last edited by xanuser; Jan 16, 2018 at 11:45 PM.
Jan 17, 2018, 06:31 AM
Registered User
What about doing this with a balloon and appropriate winds ?
Jan 17, 2018, 08:30 AM
100% electric since 1990
twest's Avatar
Originally Posted by renatoa
What about doing this with a balloon and appropriate winds ?
That has been done for years.

One of our club members is a local college engineering professor (at a women's college, btw), and back in the early 2000's they would fly GPS/telemetry balloons literally around the world. The only flight controls were to control altitude, and they would constantly monitor the worldwide prevailing winds at different altitudes. They would see which air current most fit their flight plan, and change the altitude of the balloon to catch that wind direction. When they reached their destination, they would remotely "pop" the balloon" and a parachute would deliver the electronics to a recovery crew. Fairly cool stuff, achievable with fairly simple electronic equipment.

But then, lighter-than-air records have always been different than heavier-than-air.

The "Spirit of Butt's Farm" (hobby plane that flew from Newfoundland to Ireland) was a cool project back in 2001, and it truly was a hobby project, not one done by government, university, or large corporation. I suggest everybody find the article in the Model Aviation (AMA magazine) archives.

I see no reason why a hobby-grade aircraft ("drone") couldn't do this today. It would certainly be fixed wing, not a rotary aircraft (simple physics, much poorer range with rotary). Making it electric instead of fuel would be tricky, unless it is a high altitude solar craft. But certainly possible.
Jan 17, 2018, 09:30 AM
Registered User
Don’t forget that Maynard Hill achieved his record under FAI rules that restricted weight and amount of fuel that could be carried. There was lots of out of the box engineering that made his record possible.

Jan 17, 2018, 10:48 AM
Registered User
Bill Glover's Avatar
Originally Posted by renatoa
What about doing this with a balloon and appropriate winds ?
See the rules I posted a link to
Not permitted:

1) Any interruptions in the flight whatsoever. Interruptions include landing prior to the completion of race, in-flight refueling by a 2nd aircraft, or hovering above a boat, barge or other vehicle for the purpose of replenishing fuel in the Challenge air vehicle.

2) Balloons, dirigibles or tethered aircraft of any type.
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Jan 17, 2018, 10:54 AM
Registered User
not apart of this challenge but I like the idea sailing across the ocean instead of flying? you can buy a full sized sailboat on craigslist for $500. rig some pricey servos to control the main sail and rudder.
your gonna spend more time programming and stress testing the boat then it would to sail the trip. otherwise for more money buy a boat with the autopilots built in.

yeah I can see this challenge is designed to pave the way for the corporate drone infristructure, no reason to be apart of this when it will eventually be used in someway against us in the future.
Last edited by moonraker007; Jan 17, 2018 at 11:07 AM.

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