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Volume 46 | Issue 7 | August 2004


photo: Dryden's power-beaming aircraft

Dryden's power-beaming aircraft, piloted by AS&M's Tony Frackowiak, at right, fascinated onlookers at the Edwards Air Force Base UAV Showcase. The experimental craft is pictured at top right.
NASA Photo / Tony Landis

UAV Showcase

By Jay Levine
X-Press Editor

An event designed to showcase uninhabited air vehicles put the spotlight on Dryden's power-beaming aircraft - literally.

The Aug. 2 Edwards Air Force Base UAV Showcase, held in conjunction with the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International's Unmanned Systems North American 2004 Symposium in Anaheim, Calif., brought 500 trade group members to Edwards to view the latest in UAV technology. The event showcased several UAVs that had either begun life as Dryden projects or had been built with Dryden participation, but the power-beaming aircraft ended the show with a flying display in the event hangar that had attendees on their feet and applauding.

The approximately nine-ounce remote-controlled aircraft captured energy with its solar panel, affixed to the underside of the fuselage, and converted the light to electric power for the tiny six-watt motor that turns the propeller. The experimental craft's notable past flights include the first in which laser energy was beamed to power an aircraft for stable, continuous flight, said Dave Bushman, Dryden's power-beaming project manager.  For safety reasons, the demonstration did not use a laser, but a high-power Hollywood-style searchlight, which previously had been used during developmental flights.

NASA's Alex Sim released the aircraft from a platform so the power beam could impact the solar panel and power the flight, and pilot Tony Frackowiak, AS&M, who also built the aircraft in Dryden's model shop, amazed the audience by putting the aircraft through dazzling maneuvers inside the hangar and gliding it to a gentle landing. The Dryden trio of Frackowiak, Sim and Dryden engineer Dale Reed designed the aircraft.

photo: Dryden's Predator B aircraft

The first production-version Predator B aircraft flew by, landed and then taxied in to give attendees a closer look as part of the Edwards Air Force Base UAV showcase.
NASA Photo / Tony Landis

The plane has a five-foot wingspan and is built of balsa wood and carbon fiber tubing covered with Mylar film. Bushman explained during the event that while current flights with the power-beaming aircraft are complete, he is working on two proposals that would harness the technology demonstrated on those flights.

The first concept is to enable a small UAV to reach high altitude by beaming power to it. Ideally, this would illustrate that a combination of solar power and power beaming could power aircraft for high-altitude missions, Bushman said. The second is to autonomously fly the aircraft, continuously for a month, to illustrate the utility of power beaming to enable long-duration flight. The experiment would require autonomous tracking and piloting systems.

On display in the hangar beyond the power-beaming aircraft was Altus II, a project that involved development of a dual turbo-charged engine. Altus II was flown as a technology demonstrator as part of Dryden's Environmental Research Aircraft and Sensor Technology program. The successful Altus II research program led to validation of the turbo-charged technology and to flights above 57,000 feet and longer than four hours.

A highlight of the event was a low-level flyby by the first production version of San Diego-based General Atomics Aeronautical Systems' MQ-9 Predator B, which then landed and taxied up to the ramp in front of the crowd. An RQ-1 Predator A later flew by. Altair, a NASA-funded derivative of the Predator B design, was developed under the ERAST program for civilian scientific missions and is currently being used as a testbed and flight demonstrator for the Predator B/Mariner UAVs.

Also highlighting the event was an X-43A exhibit, staffed by Dryden's Don Gatlin, AS&M. The number two X-43A vehicle had a successful flight March 27, marking the first time an integrated airbreathing supersonic ramjet (scramjet) engine exceeded hypersonic speed (about Mach 5). Project officials are expecting the number three X-43A to reach speeds of up to Mach 10 on an upcoming flight slated to airlaunch from NASA's B-52B mothership in October.

photo: Dryden's UAV aircraft

Dryden played a role in producing many of the UAVs on display at the Edwards UAV showcase. The tailless Boeing X-36, pictured here in the foreground, underwent research flights at Dryden. The X-34 technology testbed, which was once housed at the Center, may be the focus of additional research in a DARPA-Air Force Research Laboratory partnership.
NASA Photo / Tony Landis

And two former Dryden research testbeds - the remotely piloted X-36 tailless aircraft and the X-34 - were among other aircraft on display. The X-36 proved itself during flights at Dryden in the mid-1990s. The X-34, now an Air Force-owned aircraft, may see new life after the project in which it was utilized was mothballed in 2001.

Robert A. Edmondson, Air Force Flight Test Center 412th Test Wing Hypersonic Flight Test Team project manager, who manned the X-34 display, said a partnership of the Air Force Research Laboratory and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency will explore a proposal that could add an engine to the X-34. The X-34 was built from composite materials and had a thermal protection system. The proposal calls for refurbishing the old X-15 test stand at Edwards and conducting engine tests with the X-34 and validating the thermal protection system, Edmondson said.

With partners Boeing, the Air Force and DARPA, Dryden is participating in research with the X-45A aircraft in a project focused on design of an advanced joint unmanned combat air system. Across from the Boeing-built X-45A in the large exhibition hangar was another UAV, the X-47, a Northrop Grumman-U.S. Navy project. The two UAVs are slated to share much of the same software as advanced systems development on the project continues, work in which Dryden may play a role (see related story).

A Northrop Grumman Global Hawk flew by the event hangar for the enthusiastic crowd, while a second Global Hawk parked near the hangar gave attendees the opportunity to take a closer look at the aircraft. Like Dryden, Northrop Grumman is a partner in an industry effort currently under way that will make recommendations to the Federal Aviation Administration for eventual incorporation of UAVs into national airspace.

Because Global Hawk could be a testbed for some UAV technologies, the reconnaissance craft could be tapped for missions that are part of the current Dryden effort to validate UAV systems and technologies.

Other aircraft on display at the event included the Titan Aerobot from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, the Aerosonde UAV that is the focus of work by several NASA centers, and the Pointer, a UAV built by AeroVironment, Monrovia, Calif.

JPL mechanical engineer Eric Kalczycki explained the mission of the Titan Aerobot, which essentially is a blimp.

photo: Dryden's Altus II aircraft

Altus II was developed to validate such technologies as the dual turbo-charged engine, as part of Dryden's Environmental Research and Sensor Technology program.
NASA Photo / Tony Landis

"It's expected to be able to search for everything, from water to life," he said.

The Aerosonde is a small UAV on which JPL tested chemical sensors. In July the aircraft's maker, Aerosonde North America, entered into an agreement with NASA to jointly develop a research center at Goddard Space Flight Center's Wallops Flight Facility, Wallops Island, Va.

In the three-year program, the new facility will support UAV engineering and payload development, sponsor educational programs focused on UAVs, provide surveillance support for high-risk facilities and for the Department of Homeland Security and provide quick-response support for security or natural-disaster emergencies. The Aerosonde is smaller than a lawn mower, but the autonomous UAV can operate for about an hour on a battery pack and has a range of about 180 miles.

AeroVironment, developers of such successful aircraft as Pathfinder, Pathfinder-Plus and the Helios Prototype, brought their Pointer UAV to the showcase. Pointer is a production electric UAV designed for remote monitoring and surveillance. The 10-pound aircraft provides real-time video to the pilot and to observers on the ground and has potential applications in air pollution-sensing missions and chemical weapon detection.

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