The Altair, a new unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that will soon join NASA's fleet, is one of several UAVs designed for civil applications that have been developed or matured under the Environmental Research Aircraft and Sensor Technology (ERAST) program at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards, Calif.
The Altair is a modified civil version of the MQ-9 Predator B military UAV being developed through a partnership with General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc., (GA-ASI). The Predator B is an enlarged version of GA-ASI's RQ-1A Predator unmanned reconnaissance airplane, which has drawn attention for its role in gathering intelligence and as a missile-firing platform during U.S. anti-terrorist military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.
Altair took to the air on its initial checkout flight on June 9, 2003 from GA-ASI's flight test facility at El Mirage, Calif.
The first UAV to have complex triple-redundant flight controls and avionics systems, Altair will have a mission endurance of up to 32 hours. It can reach a maximum altitude of about 52,000 feet (10 miles), and will have a maximum range of about 4,200 miles. It can carry up to 750 pounds (340 kg) of sensors, radar, communications and imaging equipment in its forward fuselage. The Altair is 34 feet (10.4 meters) long, and has a wingspan of 86 feet (26.2 meters), 22 feet longer than the Predator B's 64-foot wingspan. It is powered by a reliable 700 horsepower rear-mounted Honeywell TPE-331-10T turboprop engine driving a three-blade controllable-pitch propeller.
Though unmanned, the Altair will be able to operate from conventional airports without conflict with the piloted aircraft, as air-traffic controllers will be able to talk to the ground-based Altair pilots through a voice relay. The Altair can be controlled at great distances through an "over the horizon" satellite link. That link will also allow scientists to receive research information as soon as the Altair gathers it. The plane will also include "detect, see and avoid" technology to detect other aircraft on possible collision courses. After its initial airworthiness test flights, Altair will serve as the avionics test aircraft for the production version of the MQ-9 Predator B before being transferred to NASA.
At NASA Dryden, the one-of-a-kind Altair will first be used as a test aircraft to evaluate various new control and communications technologies such as those noted above that are critical to allowing UAVs to fly safely in national airspace with other manned aircraft. Later, NASA will be able to use the Altair for a variety of environmental science missions. Possible missions being considered include volcanic observation, forest fire monitoring and atmospheric samplingthe missions that are often too dangerous, difficult or even just too dull for manned aircraft to perform.
Researchers also believe that the Altair has significant disaster-management potential, and have proposed using the Altair to provide firefighters and rescue workers bird's-eye images of forest fires and other disasters. Altair can carry a thermal imager capable of seeing through smoke, and may also fly a small synthetic-aperture radar (SAR) that can see through water vapor, clouds and smoke. SAR can provide very detailed images of flooding, damaged buildings and other infrastructures that are difficult to detect in bad weather.
NASA and GA-ASI are jointly funding development of the Altair and Predator B prototypes under the ERAST program. GA-ASI also built the Altair's predecessor, the Altus 2, for NASA under ERAST. The Altus has been flown on several operational and demonstration science missions over the past few years, and maintained stable flight for four hours at 55,000 feet altitude during a test mission several years ago.
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