Situational-awareness displays show flight track and local storm data for the micro unmanned air vehicle containing the Miniature Suborbital Telepresence system on its inaugural test fight in Vermont. (Weather imagery provided by NASA Marshall Space Flight Center) The challenges of meeting size, weight and power constraints for data systems supporting airborne science payloads become greater as the aircraft get smaller. But a July 9 flight experiment with a micro unmanned air vehicle demonstrated that those challenges could be met.
Researchers sponsored by Dryden's Small Business Innovation Research program introduced airborne science networking capabilities, such as telepresence and over-the-horizon, on an aircraft bearing a payload of instrumentation with a combined gross weight of less than three pounds.
The battery-powered NightHawk micro air vehicle, built by Applied Research Associates Inc. of Randolph, Vt., communicated with ground systems via the Iridium Satellite constellation. Simultaneously, a mission monitor delivered situational-awareness information from the satellites as computer displays that ground personnel could then access.
In recent years, NASA researchers have successfully prototyped and deployed infrastructure that enables communication between researchers and instruments on airborne platforms. The vision within airborne science is to continue expanding such sensor-web capabilities for use in all science platforms.
Existing REVEAL - Research Environment for Vehicle-Embedded Analysis on Linux - systems are too big for unmanned vehicles being considered as candidates for certain types of missions such as volcanic plume studies or situational awareness for rapidly deployed disaster relief. A REVEAL system is an "aircraft in a box" for sensor-web research, and a programmable gateway between onboard instruments and wireless communication paths to and from aircraft.
"The Miniature Suborbital Telepresence System uses NASA's REVEAL software and the same DataTurbine software used on the dominant airborne science platforms," said Matt Miller, project lead at Erigo Technologies LLC of Enfield, N.H. "We were able to demonstrate feasibility and a path toward introducing whole new families of small, reconfigurable data systems for communities that include but are not limited to environmental science."