In indoor flights conducted last month at a NASA center in Alabama, the plane flew lap after lap, gliding to a landing once the laser beam was turned off, the agency said Thursday.
While in flight, the laser tracked the 11-ounce, five-foot-wingspan plane, striking the photovoltaic cells that powered the tiny motor that turned its lone propeller.
"The craft could keep flying as long as the energy source, in this case the laser beam, is uninterrupted," said Robert Burdine, laser project manager for the tests, conducted at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.
In earlier flights completed last year, engineers manually traced the path flown by the plane with a theatrical spotlight that provided the power needed to turn its propeller.
The remote-controlled planes don't have to carry their own fuel or batteries, providing more room for scientific instruments or communications equipment.
Scientists envision flying the planes on long-duration flights to monitor the environment, including erupting volcanos. The planes also could be used for surveillance or to provide communications links.
"The aircraft could be used for everything from relaying cell phone calls to cable television or Internet connections," said David Bushman, project manager for beamed power at Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards, where the plane was designed and built.
The plane is not the first to capitalize on laser power. A team of Japanese researchers announced last year they successfully flew a paper airplane on bursts of laser light.
That team's approach differed, however: the blasts of laser heated drops of water on the plane's one-inch wings, turning them to puffs of vapor that pushed the aircraft forward.