Search Dryden


Text Size

The Promise of ERAST
Oct. 2004
A key anniversary in the development of uninhabited air vehicles quietly passed this fall. It marked 10 years since an agreement was signed that resulted the maturation of technologies, science instruments and sensors required for UAV missions.

Helios Prototype Image Right: The Helios Prototype reaches a record altitude of 96,863 feet on an Aug. 13, 2001, flight from the Pacific Missile Research Facility in Kauai, Hawaii. NASA Photo by Nick Galante

The foundation for the Environmental Research and Sensor Technology program was laid Sept. 14, 1994, when the final signature dried on what was called a Joint Sponsored Research Agreement. A year had passed between the first meeting between NASA and four potential ERAST partners and the signing of the JSRA, then a new and unique type of funding mechanism tailored for use in the ERAST program. Designed to facilitate collaboration between government agencies and the private sector, the JSRA differed markedly from conventional government procurement agreements.

Program officials have said the Dryden-based ERAST program might have failed without the JSRA, which was first researched as a new contracting option in the 1980s at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. Ames officials had previously convinced NASA Headquarters to permit use of a JSRA in three smaller projects, but the ERAST program was the first large-scale initiative to make use of it.

Ames attorney Jack Glazer began in 1988 to examine the possibility of invoking the Other Transactions Authority clause in the Space Act of 1958 for application to collaborative projects. Seeing the complexity of the undertaking, Glazer advocated for creation of a non-profit company, AmTech, to document JSRA legal and policy issues and form prototype projects. Then to encourage officials at NASA Headquarters to consider the JSRA as a potential contracting option, AmTech recruited Paul Dembling, NASA's first General Counsel and author of the Space Act, to its board of directors.

Remotely piloted Altus II Image Right: The remotely piloted Altus II, built by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, flies over the Antelope Valley. It was developed in the ERAST program to validate such technologies as the dual turbo-charged engine. It flew to more than 57,000 feet and for more than four hours. Photo courtesy of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems

The idea of convincing NASA Headquarters of the JSRA's worth was aimed at streamlining the process of forging agreements between industry and government. Even intellectual property rights - often a deal-breaker in government research agreements - would be on the table, a dramatic departure from standard government contract negotiations. In a JSRA such as the one governing the ERAST program, intellectual property rights address ownership of information garnered during the course of research.

Karen Robbins, who as a law student researched JSRA components for NASA's legal department and later was a founding member of AmTech, was key to development of Dryden's JSRA for the ERAST program. It was fitting that she work on the first of the large projects to make use of the JSRA, having essentially "written the book" on JSRAs between 1988 and 1994. Robbins' development of the JSRA model and handbook led to acceptance of the JSRA by NASA as a viable legal agreement. Following three successful smaller efforts at Ames, Robbins was ready to apply what she'd developed to something as large as the ERAST program.

The piston engine, propeller-powered aircraft Perseus Image Right: The piston engine, propeller-powered aircraft Perseus was designed and built by Aurora Flight Systems, Manassas, Va. As part of the ERAST program, the aircraft achieved an altitude of 60,200 feet on June 27, 1998. NASA Photo by Tom Tschida

As a means of enticing private industry into collaborating on the ERAST program, then, Dryden representatives began considering a JSRA as an alternative to agreements traditionally used by NASA. In some private-sector circles, NASA - and government agreements in general - had earned a reputation for creating what many viewed as unnecessarily complicated working relationships; ERAST planners recognized the potential liability such a reputation posed in attracting business partners.

Rich Christiansen, then NASA Headquarters acting division director for high-performance aircraft and flight projects (and later Dryden associate director for planning, from 2000 to 2003) said it was becoming clear that the JSRA was the appropriate funding mechanism for the ERAST program. Consultations with then-ERAST Project Manager Jenny Baer-Riedhart confirmed Christiansen's belief that use of the JSRA offered the best chance for success. Lacking confidence that the program's goals could be met through traditional agreements, Christiansen decided to champion the JSRA for use in the ERAST program.

"Several individuals and companies said they all could accomplish the task of collecting science data at 100,000 feet to support high-speed research," Christiansen recalled in a recent interview. "My confidence in their ability to gain that data was low. So was my confidence that I could write an RFP (request for proposal) that would encompass all of our requirements. There was not a lot known about flying at altitudes that ERAST research aircraft would be designed to conquer."

Scaled Composites Demonstrator 2, or D-2 Image Right: The Scaled Composites Demonstrator 2, or D-2, takes to the skies over Mojave. The D-2 could fly piloted or remotely piloted and in 1996 was linked to NASA's Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System to successfully demonstrate over-the-horizon communication capabilities between the aircraft and ground stations 2,000 miles apart. NASA Photo

So the JRSA, initially intended to encourage small projects between government and academia, now was seen as a tool for leveraging the best and brightest of a fledgling industry. ERAST program goals included putting together solid engineering data to define flight-envelope boundaries and meet the challenges of high-altitude, long-endurance flight, and development of the sensors and tools required to meet the needs of the wider science community. Participation by forward-thinking engineers in the public and private sectors would be required to attain those goals, and ERAST planners had created a contracting environment they felt would maximize the ambitious program's chances for success.

An Unlikely Alliance

Federal publications advertised a 1993 kickoff meeting for private companies interested in participating in the new ERAST program. Larger companies quickly dismissed the program concepts, and none attended. But a handful of fledgling companies saw potential in obtaining a piece of some new research work, and also in obtaining new funding. They were less enthusiastic, however, about sharing information with competitors and placing ideas on the table about new propulsion and power sources and conceptually different airframes.

"Initially, we were very skeptical. It was too good to be true," recalled Ray Morgan, then head of AeroVironment's Simi Valley, Calif., facility. "A lot of members had had experience under NASA contracting, and almost felt like they were being punished for something they did as a little boy or girl. Even rights to data the company had gathered were hard to get. Now we were being encouraged to commercialize? What's the catch?"

Four companies forged the ERAST foundation: AeroVironment, headquartered in Monrovia, Calif.; Aurora Flight Sciences, Manassas, Va.; General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, San Diego; and Scaled Composites, Mojave, Calif. Company representatives literally took four different corners of the room during the first meeting of ERAST hopefuls, and weren't particularly chatty - hardly an ideal way to begin a program.

Scaled Composite's Proteus aircraft Image Right: Scaled Composite's Proteus aircraft flies over the skies of the Antelope Valley. NASA Photo by Tony Landis

The ERAST JRSA - in its original form, a six-page document - grew to more than 80 pages during the next year as each company's lawyers requested changes. But as required signatures were given, participants could begin work. The next step involved representatives of each company forming a single group called the Alliance Council, to provide project oversight. Alliance members helped determine the type of technologies that would be pursued in the interest of benefit to all parties and the UAV industry, rather than to any single entity. Each company made contributions to the project work through some combination of cash and services, but also relied in part on government funds allocated through the terms of the JSRA. In the project's first year, 1994, the federal money was split equally four ways, with the council deciding that fund allocation would be permitted to vary in the next funding cycle.

A key component to the JSRA was that it permitted in-kind contributions, which allowed small businesses to provide goods and services to cover their contribution - an important work-around to the usual 50-50 price-sharing agreements typical of traditional government contracts. Such costs were traditionally much too high for fledgling aerospace companies pursuing untried UAV technology. That was certainly the case with AeroVironment, a company that had enjoyed success with its UAV work but did not necessarily have the financial clout to be part of any agreement requiring substantial up-front cash.

Morgan summed up conditions in the UAV development community at the time this way: "The history of UAV's had been businesses started in a garage, with each company learning the same lessons the hard way."

Anyone familiar with government contracting and the complications of dealing with the adversarial nature of the relationship, including intellectual property disputes, knows why the skeptics were many, he said.

"(ERAST) was the best deal ever for AeroVironment," Morgan said, an accurate assessment in light of the fact that with its contributions, the company revolutionized solar aircraft during the program's nine-year run.

The Crucible

If disagreements existed among the ERAST partners it wasn't apparent to the outside world, as program milestones were met regularly.

Then, in 1995, came a true test of the JSRA. While the four companies split the budget evenly in 1994, the time came for Alliance members to decide how to disburse dollars for the second budget year.

"Our plan was to fly to the stratosphere in 1995," Morgan said. "The cost of the (solar) arrays was more than expected and we ran out of money. We flew to 100 feet in August for a checkout flight and then that was going to be it (with funds available under the 1994 budget). Two other companies - Scaled Composites and General Atomics - put the money they didn't use (in the first year of the contract) back into the Alliance account for us to use and because they gave us that money, we reached 50,000 feet with Pathfinder in September. Solar Challenger (another AeroVironment project) had the previous record high for a solar aircraft, at 14,500 feet. Without the support of our former competitors, we would have been dead in the water."

As acknowledgement for its partners' sacrifices, AeroVironment developed project data memos and white papers and circulated flight test and other reports to Alliance members and NASA. The ERAST program's promise of partnership and resources had been realized.

But the potential for budget squabbles - thankfully unrealized - wasn't the last impediment AeroVironment would encounter.

Burt Rutan and Ray Morgan Image Right: Burt Rutan, Scaled Composites president and then-chief executive officer and Ray Morgan, right, then-AeroVironment vice president and director of the company's Design and Development Center, Simi Valley, Calif., shake hands at an Environmental Research Aircraft and Sensor Technology open house at Dryden Oct. 13, 1999. The handshake symbolizes the atmosphere of cooperation created in the ERAST program. NASA Photo by Tony Landis

After the 50,000-foot record flight, company officials were invited to bring Pathfinder to the Edwards Air Force Base Air Show and Open House. Officials on both sides agreed to the proposal, and the aircraft was exhibited alongside the F-117 and the B-2.

Following the close of the air show, Pathfinder remained in the hangar until after the military aircraft were removed, as had been agreed to in exhibit arrangements. Hangar doors were opened, however, in 30-knot winds, causing the lightweight Pathfinder to take a short but unintended flight into the pointed nose of the F-117, severely damaging the UAV.

NASA stepped forward with funding for the extensive repairs. Pathfinder's structure was reinforced, improved solar cells were added and in 1997, the aircraft resumed sailing into altitudes previously unknown to solar-powered craft, this time up to 70,000 feet. And because more efficient solar cells replaced those destroyed in the hangar accident, the upgraded model, dubbed Pathfinder-Plus, later broke its own record again, achieving 80,000 feet in 1998.

AeroVironment's Helios Prototype, a Pathfinder derivative, later set the current altitude record of 96,800 feet in level flight Aug. 13, 2001 - higher than any other non-rocket powered aircraft.

Schmooze or Lose

Moving Alliance members from focusing on potential gains for their individual businesses to contributing to larger project goals took work. Finding common challenges the companies could tackle without disclosing proprietary information is what Baer-Riedhart sought to do.

"Our secret was open communication between companies to discuss very real issues. In the room there were heated discussions, but we walked out as team. It was key to getting trust and working to understand where others were coming from," she said.

ERAST proved the viability of a commercial UAV industry. Its successes weren't just platforms, sensors and equipment, but identifying major barriers and finding ways to spin the technology to other uses, such as development of better solar cells for residential and commercial uses of the sun's power.

"I would say it was extremely important - not just the technology itself, but to looking at UAVs for non-military purposes and helping mature technologies that would enable industry to begin developing a commercial UAV market," Baer-Riedhart said.

"There still is a long way to go because it's difficult to fly in the national airspace, which also is an issue for military UAVs. NASA non-military UAV work took a tremendous step forward in that, while (reconnaissance aircraft) Global Hawk and Predator proved UAVs' value from the military side," she said.

Technicians move a 20-foot section of the Pathfinder Image Right: Technicians move a 20-foot section of the Pathfinder during assembly of the aircraft at Dryden in 1996. NASA Photo

The ERAST program succeeded in maturing important technologies and allowed scientists to begin posing key questions necessary for development of future UAV commercial applications, she added.

"We laid the foundation by identifying the type of technologies that needed to be developed for these kind of vehicles. Another key was developing what in the line of a, quote, 'better, faster, cheaper' environment you can do and certain fundamental engineering that needs to be done to minimize risk. For instance, in the early days we had to develop (aircraft concepts) without high-fidelity simulation and (instead) use the flight environment of a wind tunnel. We had to do a lot of flights for ERAST and we knew not all of them would be successful."

JSRA - Critical Then, Valuable Today

Technologies required for development of UAVs capable of taking on the "dull, dirty and dangerous" missions began with the ERAST program. Now, the work not only continues but is also emerging as a significant portion of Dryden's business and budget.

The ERAST program and advantages introduced through use of the JSRA were key to development of the AeroVironment family of solar vehicles, including Pathfinder, Pathfinder-Plus, Centurion and the Helios Prototype. Under the auspices of the ERAST program, Scaled Composites saw funding for its Demonstrator 2 and for its Proteus mission requirements. Aurora Flight Systems reaped development dollars for its Perseus B. General Atomics, too, came out ahead with funding for Altus II, a precursor to Predator B and its variant, Altair. Dryden currently has a lease for using an Altair for science missions.

Jeff Bauer, a former ERAST program manager, heads an effort currently under way at Dryden to assist the Federal Aviation Administration with research aimed at incorporating high-altitude, long-endurance remotely operated aircraft into national airspace.

"It's hard for me to imagine a government or a country getting the products we developed though ERAST any other way (but through the use of the JSRA). It was an efficient tool for optimizing contributions from the government and private sector. The collaborative and cooperative nature of the project was key to our success," Bauer said.

And the JSRA also is a linchpin of Bauer's latest work with the FAA.

"I'm not sure we could do it if not for the JSRA. (In a traditional agreement), we generally rely on a set of requirements in order for a contract to be issued. But with a JSRA, we can first form the minimum requirements so that eventually we can issue a traditional contract for goods and services we'll need."

In the case of the FAA project, "We want vehicles in the national airspace, but we're not sure yet what the ground rules should be. That's what we're working to determine with industry through this effort. I don't see how a traditional (contract) approach could work with multiple companies and government agencies."

+ View Volume 46, Issue 9, October 2004 Dryden X-Press

+ View current headline stories

Jay Levine
X-Press Editor