In the August issue of Defense Tech Briefs, we highlighted NASA’s Altair/Predator B unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) for Earth science missions. A lot has happened in the past two months, so we’re providing an update on the latest aircraft and applications in NASA’s growing UAV program.
New Science and Technology Capabilities
The inventory of research aircraft at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center in Edwards, CA, has grown by one with the acquisition of a new Predator B unmanned aircraft system called Ikhana, built by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. (GA-ASI) of San Diego. The goals for the aircraft include collecting data that allow scientists to better understand and model environmental conditions and climate, increasing the intelligence of unmanned aircraft to perform advanced missions, and demonstrating technologies that enable new manned and unmanned aircraft capabilities.
The aircraft, designed for long-endurance and high-altitude flight, is being used for multiple roles including Earth science studies, and data collection within the Earth’s atmosphere. Piloted aircraft are limited by crew duty requirements that generally restrict science flights to 10 hours or less. Unmanned aircraft are more suitable for remote missions spanning open oceans or the polar regions where the lack of nearby emergency landing locations increases the risk for piloted missions.
“The FAA has been very cooperative in helping to define ways to achieve our mission objectives while protecting the safety of the national airspace system,” said Greg Buoni, lead operations engineer for Ikhana. “Because unmanned aircraft currently have limited ability to see and avoid other aircraft and, in some cases, have lower reliability than a manned aircraft, unmanned flights within the national airspace require a COA and are subject to significant restrictions in their operation.”
NASA has also purchased a ground control station and satellite communication system. The ground control station is in a mobile trailer and, in addition to the pilot’s “cockpit,” includes computer workstations for scientists and engineers. All the aircraft systems are mobile, making Ikhana ideal for remote studies.
Ikhana is the first production Predator B equipped with an upgraded digital electronic engine controller (DEEC) developed by Honeywell and GA-ASI that will make it five to 10 percent more fuel efficient.
Improving Wildfire Imaging
The West Coast of the United States has suffered extreme heat and drought this summer, leading to greater danger of wildfires. From mid-August through September, NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center flew Ikhana to demonstrate the capabilities of its new imaging and real-time communications equipment. The first flight on August 16 captured images of California wildfires. The aircraft carried instruments that collected data while flying more than 1,200 miles over a 10-hour period.
“These tests are a ground-breaking effort to expand the use of unmanned aircraft systems in providing real-time images in an actual fire event,” said Vincent Ambrosia, principal investigator of the Western States Fire Mission at NASA’s Ames Research Center. “This is a prime example of NASA science and technology being used to solve real-world problems.”
Dryden completed a six month process to obtain a Certificate of Authorization from the FAA allowing an unmanned aircraft to fly wildfire-sensing missions in the national air space of the western states. Pilots from NASA and GA-ASI operated the aircraft from the ground control station at Dryden.