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UAVs Taking Center Stage: Dryden Role Extends to Include Other Areas of Aeronautics Research
11.20.04
 
People could be flying around like characters in the popular 1960s-era cartoon "The Jetsons" once NASA unlocks technology barriers that will allow commercial enterprise to mass-produce the vehicles introduced in the science fiction of the last century.

Don't expect George, the Jetson family patriarch, and his boy Elroy to pull up to your curb just yet. But it's increasingly central to NASA's aviation vision to focus on identifying technological impediments, developing incremental steps to eliminate those problems and creating solutions through flight experiments. Uninhabited Air Vehicles, or UAVs, and NASA's role in aeronautics research were the focus of an Oct. 7 seminar at Dryden. Guest speakers at the event, which was organized by Dryden Communications Officer Jenny Baer-Riedhart, included Robert McKinley and Teresa Kline, associate and deputy program manager for strategy, respectively, for the Vehicle Systems Program, within the aeronautics research mission directorate at NASA Headquarters.

A brief video displayed UAVs on which Dryden played a role in maturing technologies. The video also had an animation of a Jetsons-style aircraft rolling out of the garage, wings deploying and taking to the skies. McKinley and Kline said Dryden will be central to the entire spectrum of NASA's aeronautics research. Every NASA aeronautical project undertaken with the VSP will be geared toward inclusion in an experiment on a testbed, or in an integrated system of tech-nologies that could be part of a new experimental vehicle.

The vehicle integration, strategy and technology assessment team directed by McKinley and Kline within the VSP office contains six vehicle sectors through which aeronautics goals will be categorized, including autonomous or personal air vehicles, a major effort in UAVs and related work; supersonic aircraft; subsonic transports; rotocraft and runway-independent aircraft.

As the assessment team's UAV sector manager, Dryden's Larry Camacho has the critical task of integrating all NASA's UAV technology development work, leading to UAV systems integration and flight demonstrations at Dryden. In addition to the six vehicle sectors, the VSP also breaks work on the technologies of tomorrow down into seven projects (referred to as Level 2 projects): quiet aircraft technology, ultra-efficient engine technology, low emissions alternative power, autonomous robust avionics, efficient aerodynamic shapes and integration, flight and system demonstration, vehicle integration, strategy and integrated tailored aerostructures.

An outline illustrating how research goals will be realized was reflected in long-term strategy formulated and assembled into what McKinley called a Goals, Objectives and Technical Challenges and Approach (GOTChA) chart. The chart displayed boxes that moved from one project area to another in step-by-step fashion, showing relationships with other Agency goals and objectives. As it flows to the bottom of the page, McKinley explained, leading to a flight experiment, the chart allows officials to show at a glance what the available VSP funding will achieve.

For example, McKinley indicated, using the chart as a guide, a goal for high-altitude, long-endurance remotely operated aircraft research is autonomous mission operations. A corresponding objective is full autonomy during emergencies. The inherent technical challenge is developing long-endurance unaided autonomous operations and navigation, and the approach is through development of lightweight, miniature, robust integrated avionics and sensors.

The culmination of the goal is a successful high-altitude, long-endurance mission demonstration of the integrated technologies of the Suborbital Long Endurance Observer, or SOLEO, platform by the fall of 2009, if incremental steps are funded. Key milestones also are identified, including an upcoming Pathfinder-Plus flight to validate aerostructural-modeling tools to reduce risks and increase chances of mission success.

The approach spelled out in the GOTChA charts represents a changing role for Dryden. Known for integration and flight research prowess, the Center is tapped in the new Agency structure to seek out technologies developed at various NASA centers and integrate them into research systems. Conversely, engineers working at other centers on flight research objectives will be required to connect with a future flight research project or have a plan to integrate with technologies leading to a long-term goal. While NASA won't build vehicles per se in each of the vehicle sectors, McKinley explained, putting together sets of capabilities to resolve technology barriers is the new aeronautics program focus.

David McBride and Eddie Zavala, manager and deputy manager of the flight and systems demonstration project, respectively, will be on the lookout for emerging technologies at all NASA centers and will look for ways those technologies can "graduate" through the crucible of flight research. That is the culmination of any research project on the GOTChA charts - flight research, or integration into a larger set of technologies for experimental aircraft. Research does not always lead to breakthroughs, McKinley acknowledged, but the concept being promoted by NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe is one of developing technologies needed by the private sector and maturing those technologies to where they can be transitioned to NASA customers and private-sector users, eventually permitting the American taxpayer to reap the benefits of federally funded research.

Dryden's current focus is on the UAV aspect of the new aeronautics research mission directorate plans, since UAV business at Dryden is sharply rising. It will increase from 24 percent of the workload in fiscal year 2004 to more than double that in fiscal year 2005, and is projected to grow to as much as 60 percent of the Center's business by the end of the decade. During the seminar, Randy Albertson provided an overview of these potential new UAV projects and partnerships pursued within the Dryden Program Planning Office.

A panel discussion also included a brief examination of key programs, including a presentation by Dryden's Mark Dickerson, who described the current effort to incorporate high-altitude, long-endurance aircraft into the national airspace. John Del Frate spoke on the development of HALE platforms, including SOLEO and the Global Observer, and Gary Martin expounded on the work of the Joint Unmanned Combat Aircraft System project.

Other speakers included Frank Cutler, detailing the Earth science capability demonstration projects, and John Carter, representing the Autonomous Robust Avionics Project, or AuRA. Dryden UAV chief technologist Chris Nagy discussed potential UAV mission opportunities for high-altitude, long-endurance aircraft. Potential applications include investigating and monitoring hurricanes, volcanoes and weather; Antarctic research; coastal patrol services for the Department of Homeland Security; land management; fire fighting and wildlife census.

Incorporating high-altitude, long-endurance aircraft in the national airspace is a key area of the Center's UAV work. In a collaborative effort with industry, this Dryden-led initiative, now under way, will formulate recommendations to the Federal Aviation Administration for requirements governing high-altitude, long-endurance aircraft and rules that will one day permit such UAVs to fly routinely alongside traditional piloted aircraft.

As part of the technology demonstration efforts, Dryden seeks access to a Global Hawk reconnaissance UAV and an advanced UAV testbed platform such as a Predator B. Acquisition of a Global Hawk or a Predator B would be in addition to a current lease on the shorter-range Altair UAV and lease possibilities for the Scaled Composites-built Proteus. The goal is for Dryden to maintain a stable of UAV aircraft that will enable the defining and redefining this new aviation frontier.

Key partnerships among NASA, industry, academia and other government agencies will seek to guide UAV technology for Earth science uses and for other applications in the far reaches of space. Development of technologies to fuel those concepts will require researchers to travel many of the same paths, and "Dryden has a place in both of these areas," said Camacho, who also is the UAV national task force process team leader.

In his role with the national task force, Camacho heads an effort to develop a comprehensive plan, including best practices, to benefit the infant UAV industry. That work will combine various UAV elements into a national civil UAV assessment.

UAVs are not new to Dryden, where UAV research has been ongoing for more than 30 years. The Environmental Research and Sensor Technology program ended last spring after nine years of pushing the limits of UAV technology while meeting mission goals and setting altitude records. The ERAST program provided a jump-start to development of high-altitude, long-endurance remotely operated aircraft.

"ERAST is still paying dividends," said Camacho, who said opportunity to continue that groundbreaking work exists. He specified a need for continuing development of sensors and other instrumentation, and providing those to scientists.

Whatever the future of aviation research looks like, one thing is clear: UAVs - and Dryden - will be a part of it.
 
 
Jay Levine
NASA Dryden Flight Research Center