The fastest remote-controlled airplane flight ever recorded took place in 2018, with a top speed of 545 miles/hour. That’s 877 km/h, or Mach 0.77!
What was the limiting factor, preventing the pilot-and-designer Spencer Lisenby’s plane from going any faster? The airstream over parts of the wing hitting the sound barrier, and the resulting mini sonic booms wreaking havoc on the aerodynamics. What kind of supercharged jet motor can propel a model plane faster than its wings can carry it? Absolutely none; the fastest RC planes are, surprisingly, gliders.
Dynamic soaring (DS) was first harnessed to propel model planes sometime in the mid 1990s. Since then, an informal international competition among pilots has pushed the state of the art further and further, and in just 20 years the top measured speed has more than tripled. But dynamic soaring is anything but new. Indeed, it’s been possible ever since there has been wind and slopes on the earth. Albatrosses, the long-distance champs of the animal kingdom, have been “DSing” forever, and we’ve known about it for a century.
DS is the highest-tech frontier in model flight, and is full of interesting physical phenomena and engineering challenges. Until now, the planes have all been piloted remotely by people, but reaching new high speeds might require the fast reaction times of onboard silicon, in addition to a new generation of aircraft designs. The “free” speed boost that gliders can get from dynamic soaring could extend the range of unmanned aerial vehicles, when the conditions are right. In short, DS is at a turning point, and things are just about to get very interesting. It’s time you got to know dynamic soaring.