Cosentino Sees X-45A Through DARPA's Eyes
By Jay Levine
The eyes and ears of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency have a familiar face for Dryden employees in Gary Cosentino, Dryden's former X-45A project manager.
Cosentino recently explained both his role as DARPA onsite representative and the ways that Dryden facilities and expertise have been tapped to help the project reach new milestones - including the Aug. 1 flight, which marked the first time two unmanned aerial vehicles flew under a single controller.
DARPA plays the role of primary sponsor and coordinator of the X-45A demonstration effort, which encompasses work by the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Navy and Dryden. Last year, the Department of Defense combined the Air Force's Boeing Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle efforts (including the X-45A demonstrations) and the Navy's Northrop Grumman X-47 activities to form the Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems, or J-UCAS program. It's expected that the program's Boeing X-45A and Northrop Grumman X-47 demonstrator aircraft ultimately will share a common operating system.
J-UCAS program director Michael Leahy asked Cosentino to assume the role of DARPA customer representative, which "puts me in the role of being the eyes and ears of the DARPA program office at the test site (Dryden)," Cosentino said.
On loan to DARPA from NASA for two years, Cosentino said his continuing DARPA role isn't much different than that of his former one as Dryden's X-45A project manger.
"In some ways it isn't different at all," he said. "As a project manager for Dryden, I always had the maximum involvement I could have because of my intense interest in the program. But now, I still have that day-to-day involvement; it's simply that I do it for a different set of managers. I don't find myself having to do as many administrative tasks and can concentrate instead on the business of flight test of the X-45As."
Cosentino pointed out that Dryden's one-of-a-kind facilities have made DARPA's job more manageable.
"Dryden has unique facilities, particularly with the (aeronautical test) range," he said. "For example, with our two radars, we're able to do a couple of things that are of great benefit to the program. One is we can track two vehicles at the same time. Getting two radars dedicated to use on a regular basis is a big advantage. We're able to handle the multiple vehicle ops routinely.
"Also, the X-45A has two GPS (global positioning system) navigation systems, one primary and one backup. Should those fail, we can rely on Dryden's radar position data and send that up to the airplane; that will serve as a tertiary emergency backup nav and allow us to get the aircraft safely back home and on the runway. We've proved we can do that. That's a direct role the range capabilities can play in flight safety, should we lose both of the redundant GPS systems," Cosentino said, describing Dryden's ability to essentially provide the X-45A with a safety net for its safety net.
Dryden's other contributions include the F-18 chase aircraft, research pilots and backseat photographers or videographers to document flights. Dryden also has assisted by providing engineers for flight controls development, structural dynamics and ground vibration testing and development of the aircraft's contingency management system.
"Ground vibration tests are complex and absolutely critical to the flight control system, (in order) to know what the aircraft's natural frequencies are," Cosentino continued. "The contingency management system detects hundreds of potential failures and selects the appropriate airplane response for safe recovery. Our flight controls engineers developed the control laws that the aircraft uses during ground taxi operations. This effort has been highly successful, giving the X-45A unique abilities to taxi and maneuver itself amongst other airfield traffic, to 'hold short' while waiting for clearance to take the runway and behave just like any other airplane out there."
Partnerships with Edwards Air Force Base and the Air Force Flight Test Center complex also offer many positives for flight testing, he said. Some of those include access to lakebeds and restricted airspace and the base's remote location, all desirable for flight research. In addition, Cosentino acknowledged the work of Air Force maintenance crews in preparing two X-45As for same-day flight, which requires technicians to report for work as early as 3 a.m.
Cosentino added that the DARPA-Dryden partnership could lead to future opportunities for the Center.
"Part of the J-UCAS common operating system is designed to assure a commonality of protocols between vehicles, and other elements of sharing - in this environment of systems integration, there may be a role for Dryden."
Officials at DARPA also are closely watching a Dryden-led project to provide information to the Federal Aviation Administration, an effort aimed at incorporating high-altitude, long-endurance aircraft into the national airspace and, ultimately, all UAVs as well.
Multi-vehicle flights controlled by a single pilot/operator, like the Aug. 1 event, demonstrate the X-45A's increasing capability as the project moves closer to its goal of endowing the aircraft with decision-making capability.
"(X-45A aircraft) will have more and more autonomy as the software matures, and the operator will select varying levels of autonomy based on the rules of engagement," Cosentino said. "It makes an autonomous taxi, takeoff and landing. There's an operator-in-the-loop 'manager' of the remotely operated systems who'll be able to delegate either more or less decision making to the machine. The decisions also can be changed on the fly. It's remotely operated and managed, but not 'flown' as conventional aircraft are."
As efforts to expand the X-45A's capabilities continue, one thing is clear: Dryden's resources and people are ready to help.