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Altair Effort Scores Win for NASA/NOAA Team
June 17, 2005
 
With Dryden's assistance, the Altair uninhabited air vehicle recently completed a series of missions for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. A series of science missions conducted in May with the Altair uninhabited air vehicle marked the first UAV collaboration by Dryden and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Image Right: With Dryden's assistance, the Altair uninhabited air vehicle recently completed a series of missions for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Dryden assisted NOAA with lease of the Altair aircraft, built by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. of San Diego, and provided instrumentation for a series of atmospheric and oceanic research flights off the California coastline.

Dryden Mission Manager Chris Jennison said the mission had many successes but some objectives will require a second set of sorties, scheduled for later this summer.

"UAVs of Altair's class hold great promise for the advancement of Earth science," Jennison said. "There are still many technical challenges to be discovered and conquered in their application and in their merging into the airspace with other users, but we're making progress."

As part of those missions, Dryden's science instrument, called the Research Environment for Vehicle Embedded Analysis on Linux, or REVEAL performed well, said Dryden's Larry Freudinger, REVEAL development team lead.

The REVEAL system is a programmable data acquisition and processing tool designed to help researchers develop network-oriented solutions for interacting with science instruments on remote aircraft. REVEAL gathers and stores information about the aircraft and other instruments, performs additional calculations and relays time-critical status data via satellite between the aircraft and ground-based researchers. Leveraging network technologies for integrating aircraft instrumentation lowers costs and while interactive network connectivity provides instrument operators with the flexibility needed to adapt to changing situations.

"We're very pleased with REVEAL's inaugural performance on Altair and its ability to adapt to the challenges of UAV-based science missions," Freudinger said. "Our prototype airborne sensor Web capability delivered an immediate return on investment by providing near-real-time status information to all Altair project participants with Internet access."

The Altair aircraft is outfitted for a series of missions conducted for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Dryden assisted NOAA with that agency's first efforts at completing a science mission with an uninhabited air vehicle. Image Left: The Altair aircraft is outfitted for a series of missions conducted for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Dryden assisted NOAA with that agency's first efforts at completing a science mission with an uninhabited air vehicle.

NASA's digital camera system and electro-optical infrared sensor also proved their mettle during the mission. The digital camera system was used in shoreline mapping, and characterization of the shore and inland features for habitat mapping and ecosystem monitoring. About 260 images documenting nearly 25 percent of the Channel Islands were obtained during the mission series.

The electro-optical infrared sensor demonstrated capabilities for day and night surveillance and marine mammal surveys. Real-time surveillance capabilities were demonstrated in areas north of Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa.

Images of a sea lion rookery containing more than 100 members were clear enough to be used in population studies. The instruments successfully identified a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter and several surface vessels. Studies using the imagery proved the technology could be used by enforcement officials in tracking and identifying vessels at distances of up to 15 nautical miles. Video captured by the cameras also illustrated the potential for using real-time images in surveillance and ecosystem monitoring.

The mission series also served to solidify the partnership between Dryden and NOAA, said Frank Cutler, Dryden Earth Science Capabilities Demonstration project manager.

"(NOAA staff) are learning what it takes to operate a UAV within the national airspace system," he said. "NOAA representatives learned the value of Dryden's expertise in operating UAVs and that we can help them execute their missions. It looks like this is the beginning of a successful relationship."

Scott C. Rayder, NOAA chief of staff, wrote in a letter to Center Director Kevin Petersen:

"I wanted to contact you to thank you and your staff from NASA Science and Aeronautics directorates for your contributions to the recent Altair missions. NOAA would like to voice our support for continuation and growth of the NOAA/NASA partnership to develop UAV technology supporting network centric global observation systems.

An instrument developed at Dryden by Larry Freudinger, program lead for the Research Environment for Vehicle Embedded Analysis on Linux Development program. Image Right: An instrument developed at Dryden by Larry Freudinger, program lead for the Research Environment for Vehicle Embedded Analysis on Linux Development program.

"While I understand more work needs to be done to mature UAV systems for these critical applications, NOAA looks forward to continuation of the partnership with NASA to resolve the challenges and realize the true operational capabilities UAVs can provide. Both agencies are breaking new ground here and it is NOAA's intention to leverage the experience and capabilities of NASA's Science and Aeronautics Directorates staff to make it happen."

The Altair mission marked the first time NOAA has funded a UAV Earth science demonstration mission. The experiment is aimed at introducing a new era of science by using a UAV in an operational environment to fill research gaps in critical areas such as weather and water, climate and ecosystem monitoring.

The Altair, whose development was funded in part by NASA through the Environmental Research Aircraft and Sensor Technology, or ERAST, program carried a payload of instruments. Mission objectives included evaluation of UAVs for future NOAA scientific and operational requirements for oceanic and atmospheric research, climate research, marine sanctuary mapping, law enforcement, nautical charting and fisheries assessment.

"NASA is glad to see that UAVs are being used for more and more diverse and important operations," said Terrence Hertz, deputy associate administrator for technology, NASA Aeronautics Research mission directorate. "We're looking forward to more breakthrough research in areas such as regenerative fuel cells, multi-UAV operations through networking and routine access to the national airspace system that will allow UAVs to play an expanding role in Earth science and other types of missions."

UAVs' potential to help NOAA reach some of its objectives is not lost on officials of that agency.

"UAVs will allow us to see weather before it happens, detect toxins before we breathe them and discover harmful and costly algal blooms before the fish do - and there's an urgency to more effectively address these issues," said Vice Adm. Conrad C. Lautenbacher Jr., Undersecretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA Administrator.

Developing cutting-edge technologies and transferring the knowledge to people and agencies that can use it is a primary goal of NASA's Vehicle Systems program, a branch of the Aeronautics mission directorate.

"Demonstration of high-altitude, long-endurance aircraft work is one of the cornerstones of the new Vehicle Systems program," said Richard Wlezien, Vehicle Systems program manager at NASA Headquarters.

"This is the one place where Aeronautics can give direct support to Exploration Systems and Earth Science missions. We also look forward to working with other agencies as we did with NOAA during the Altair missions. We believe there has to be something in between ground-based and space-based operations. This series of missions is the first step down that road."

Dryden officials hope to see the Center play key roles in Vehicle Systems efforts, said Joel Sitz, Dryden UAV mission director.

"The recent Altair science mission demonstrations are a continuation of Dryden's emerging role in helping the science community understand and discover how UAVs can be inserted into a global observation system," he said. "The vision will require the development of new UAV technologies and mission capabilities. At Dryden, we're used to integrating systems into aircraft; now we're looking at inserting aircraft into systems."

The Altair, a high-altitude civil derivative of General Atomics' Predator B military UAV, was designed for scientific and commercial research missions. With an 86-foot wingspan, it can reach altitudes up to 52,000 feet and remain airborne for more than 30 hours.

"Altair has proven its ability to perform long-endurance, high-altitude scientific missions in controlled airspace for NASA, and we look forward to continuing to demonstrate the strength of government agency-industry collaborations by adding NOAA as our new partner," said Thomas J. Cassidy Jr., president and chief executive officer of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems.

Partners on the mission also included NASA's suborbital program office of the Science mission directorate; sensor support for NOAA's coastal monitoring and survey elements was provided by the NASA Aero Science ER-2 sensor technical staff. Real-time, Internet-based flight-progress tracking was provided by an Earth Science Capabilities Demonstration project, the Over the Horizon Telepresence and Networking Team, in conjunction with NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala.

 
 
Jay Levine
X-Press Editor