Image above: General Atomics Aeronautical Systems' uninhabited Altair will begin a
series of missions in August to prove the utility of unmanned air
systems in carrying instruments to help field commanders gather
information for use in battling summer wildfires in western states.
Dryden Capabilities Contribute
to Demonstration Missions
July 31, 2006
NASA photo by Carla Thomas
The Western States Unmanned Aircraft Systems Fire Mission is
scheduled to begin Aug. 14, with Dryden and Ames Research Center,
Moffett Field, Calif., assisting the U.S. Forest Service, said Robert
Navarro, Dryden's Altair project manager.
The Altair, leased by Dryden from General Atomics Aeronautical
Systems Inc., San Diego, will fly at altitudes of about 43,000 feet
during missions, which will originate from the General Atomics
facility at Gray Butte, Calif.
"Altair is carrying an instrument that will penetrate smoke and ash
and transmit the imagery down to a station on the ground," explained
Navarro, referring to the Autonomous Modular System, which uses
multi-spectral line scanning that utilizes thermal channels.
"The images will be available to the fire commander, in near-real
time, and will show the fire's hot spots to help efficiently use
resources on the ground to knock down the flames."
In addition, software in the ground mission planning system will
superimpose road maps and other valuable information in near-real
time to assist firefighters in seeing not only where hot spots are
but also the best ways to reach them.
Altair research flights could include missions to Northern
California, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Utah, Arizona or "wherever
the fire is," Navarro said.
Instrumentation on the Altair also includes a National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration atmospheric gas-sampling tool.
Providing the tools
Altair is one of several Dryden research tools available to aid the
Earth science community, said Bob Curry, acting director of Dryden's
Science mission directorate, of which Dryden's work for the Earth
Science Capability Demonstration is a part. Key aircraft assets such
as the ER-2 and Altair as well as a Predator-class uninhabited air
system, or UAS, that Dryden expects to acquire will be available for
customer needs on airborne projects.
Image above: The ER-2 is one of many assets available through the Dryden Science
mission directorate for customers with research needs in the upper
atmosphere. Dryden also is working to add new capabilities to its
aircraft to accommodate new customers.
NASA photo by Tony Landis
The Suborbital Office at NASA Headquarters provides Earth science
researchers with access to Dryden's resources in areas such as
atmospheric science, geology and land use for work involving such
global problems as climate change and international pollution, Curry
said. In addition to preparing new UAS platforms for science
missions, he said Dryden is working to reacquaint the science
community with the ER-2's utility and reliability. He'd like to see
the ER-2 busy year-round for science missions again, as it was in the
"The ER-2 is a highly unique airplane with complex, one-of-a-kind
capabilities," Curry said. "Our contribution is to be able to provide
airborne flight services reliably and to meet mission objectives
within budget and on schedule."
Reliability in systems and research platforms is critical for
scientists researching specific phenomena such as weather and
geologic events occurring at certain locations and times of the year,
"We've been asked to pursue the use of unpiloted air vehicles to help
the Earth science community get their instruments aloft in different
kinds of scenarios that just are not possible in piloted aircraft.
Endurance - being able to fly for 24 hours or more - is just one
scenario that is unique to the unpiloted aircraft," said Frank
Cutler, Dryden's Earth Science Capability Demonstration project
Another is the very hazardous scenario in which it would not be worth
the risk to deploy piloted aircraft. A mission is planned for this
hurricane season, for example, wherein a small UAS will be flown at
low altitudes in a hurricane to collect data never before available
to weather modelers.
Developing new capabilities
In addition to research platforms and currently available technology,
Dryden is helping to develop new technology enhancements for
unpiloted aircraft that could present new possibilities.
Structural and navigational modifications are underway on the NASA G
III aircraft for carrying new synthetic aperture radar. This new
system will be capable of being flown repeatedly over any period of
time through a predetermined 10-meter "tube" in the airspace,
allowing researchers to detect and analyze minute changes in the
Earth's crust, Cutler said.
This new capability, called the Repeat Pass Interferometry (a part of
the UAV synthetic aperture radar, or UAVSAR) - may eventually be
incorporated into a UAS platform. The new system could be especially
useful, for example, to researchers investigating seismic fault
lines. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., is at work on
the instrument and related data analysis tools while Dryden is
developing the precision navigation system, structurally modifying
the aircraft and designing pods to carry the UAVSAR instrument.
Adding this new technology to piloted aircraft like the G III is an
efficient means of moving these technologies to UAS platforms, Cutler
said. The UAVSAR ultimately could be transferred to a Predator-class
aircraft. Developers of the system believe it can be refined even
further to navigate the aircraft using the tool inside a one-meter
tube, providing researchers with an even higher-resolution means of
studying Earth's ever-changing crust.
New data system
When Altair flies in August it will feature Dryden innovations like
the Research Environment for Vehicle-Embedded Analysis on Linux
capability, or REVEAL, a programmable gateway between onboard
instruments and wireless communication paths to and from the aircraft.
In a nutshell, this new data system allows for high-tech, real-time
capture and transfer of information from instruments onboard the
aircraft to users or researchers on the ground. Information from the
aircraft then can be enhanced with overlays such as digital weather
and terrain maps to give researchers broad situational awareness of
the environment within which the instruments are operating.
"We're working with the researchers to help them get their
instruments on the appropriate aircraft platform," Cutler explained.
"We offer to bring them onsite to look at the aircraft and understand
what we're doing with it. Once we think we have a mission, we look to
see what instruments group together to allow researchers to share
costs to make it more affordable."
Dryden has a long history of working with UAS aircraft, excellent
relationships with other test ranges and a thorough understanding of
how to work with the Federal Aviation Administration, Cutler said.
"The FAA trusts us to do the right thing. If it were not safe, our
own agency wouldn't allow it. They're banking on our reputation. Our
safety-review processes are very important," he said. "The UAS
activities of Dryden and its partners will undoubtedly help to shape
how UAS operations become routine in the national airspace."
The FAA is currently undergoing reorganization aimed in part at
setting up airframe certification and flight authorization procedures
for UAS vehicles, Cutler said. Large-scale civil operations of UAS
are complicated and will require time and patience to be safely
developed, he added.
In the meantime, UAS capability assessment studies are ongoing to
identify the types of technologies required to fulfill requirements
and whether those technologies are available or will need to be
developed, Cutler continued.
The Suborbital Science office at NASA Headquarters is Dryden's key
customer, he said, and he anticipates a long and productive
relationship that will evolve into exciting UAS science missions.
"We're currently assessing the possibility of UAS participation in
the International Polar Year activities that are due to start in
about a year," he said. The proposed polar mission would entail
long-duration flights as well as the need to land on icy runways and
cope with extreme weather conditions that constantly and quickly
"Can these systems operate in unforgiving environments?" Cutler asked.
That's part of the mission - determining the best way to get it accomplished.
Altair is seen as one of the center's workhorse UAS aircraft for
science missions. It successfully completed an 18.4-hour NOAA project
in November 2005, a high-altitude, long-endurance series of missions
that entailed collection of airsamples at various altitudes, missions
800 miles off the U.S. West Coast, enforcement patrol, use of
high-resolution digital cameras for mapping, monitoring coastline
erosion and counting coastal sea mammal populations.
"Information that UAS aircraft can help researchers gather will help
to develop better models to predict what will happen next," Cutler