HAWTHORNE, Nevada – In the searing midday heat of the Nevada desert, a white Jeep Wrangler heads down a desolate strip of dirt road, surrounded on either side by miles of sagebrush and sand.
As the Jeep bumps along, two members of a Microsoft research team, Jim Piavis and Rick Rogahn, steady themselves against the roll bar, their feet planted on the seats and their upper bodies jutting out of the open roof. They are scanning the bright blue sky, tracking a type of glider known as a sailplane.
The delicate black, white and red sailplane swerves wildly and unevenly at first, and then gradually begins to make wide, soaring circles.
A hawk appears next to it, following the same circular pattern.
“We’ve got a friend up there with us,” says Piavis, head of mission readiness. “That’s a good sign.”
The 16 ½ -foot, 12 ½- pound sailplane has found a thermal, or an invisible column of air that rises due to heat. Soon, it is soaring through the sky, the Jeep reaching speeds up to 30 miles per hour as it flies down the dusty dirt road in hot pursuit of what the team is calling the infinite soaring machine.