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It’s a boat. It’s a plane …

Flying scientists fuse ultralight with inflatable raft

VIDEO | When drones are inadequate and helicopters are too expensive, scientists in need of help from above can call in this rara avis
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Second lake to the right

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What weighs 250kg, has a wingspan of 11 metres, fly at speeds of up to 80km hour, lands on water and could wind up saving research teams hundreds of thousands of dollars?

An inflatable raft fastened to an ultralight aeroplane, of course.

Scientists conducting research in Greenland and other remote areas are often faced with the problem of immense distances, difficult terrain and extreme transport costs.

SEE VIDEOS of the flying raft in action (at end of article)

In Greenland, chartering a helicopter costs upwards of 30,000 kroner ($4,500) per hour. Drones have been mulled as an inexpensive solution, but when scientists need to have boots on the ground or their hands in the water, they are inadequate.

The idea to fuse the lightweight flying and floating equipment was brainchild of Jeppe Møhl, a pilot and veteran participant of the Aktiv expedition, a seafaring research voyage. Møhl’s contraption has since been refined and was successfully used in 2014 to transport scientists to inland glaciers and lakes.

Speaking with PolarFronten, a Danish polar science magazine, Kurt H Kjær, of the Centre for Geogenetics at the University of Copenhagen, explained that he had been impressed by the mobility that hyrbidity provided.

“We needed to drill 32 cores and got most of them with the flying raft. If we had done it any other way it would have taken us a lot longer.”

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The flying raft has a carrying capacity of 450kg and room for a crew of two. It can fly a distance of about 150km on a single tank of fuel.

“The two of us flew out, landed on the lake, found the site we needed to drill, anchored and drilled. A trip took between three and four hours and we were able cover an enormous area,” Kjær said.

During the expedition, the flying raft was also used to transport heavy equipment.

And, like drones, the flying raft is suitable for reconnaissance and aerial photography, say its inventors.

Unlike its unmanned cousins, however, if the flying fraft capsizes (which it did on one occassion) its crew gets wet. But neither can they feel the wind in their helmet.

The flying raft, in action over Greenland this summer.

The flying raft during test flying over Copenhagen in 2012.