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New Heights: Multi-Faceted Aircraft Offers Flexibility and Reliability
Ikhana flies over the high desert. Ikhana flies over the high desert. NASA Photo / Lori Losey. The Ikhana project's new manager has a special appreciation for the unique aircraft's potential.

When Ikhana flew missions over the deadly 2007 California wildfires, Tom Rigney was a Dryden project manager living in the Antelope Valley but he retained a home in Santiago Canyon - ground zero for some of the worst of the blazes. His home was surrounded by a 28,000-acre brush fire as Ikhana flew above the inferno and gathered information for firefighting commanders on the ground. It was a close call for Rigney, as the fire came within 30 feet of his house.

"The people themselves - not only the firefighters, but those people whose homes and lives are involved - want to know where the fire boundaries are," Rigney said. "They've been evacuated, and they have no way of finding out where the fire is. These images let people know where the fire is with accuracy.

"Having been in that situation myself, I know the value. It was very distressing."

The Ikhana, a civil variant of the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Predator B, is a remotely piloted aircraft flown from a cockpit in a Dryden ground control station. The ground station, which is mobile, also houses monitoring and research capabilities necessary for carrying out the aircraft's science missions.

Over a five-day period last fall, the Ikhana team assisted the U.S. Forest Service with the California wildfire disaster by providing imagery in near real-time to emergency operation command centers and individual fire-incident commands. The team used skills refined while working on the Western States Fire Missions completed earlier in the summer, when the aircraft's thermal infrared sensors were used to map wildfires in six states on missions of up to 20 hours in duration.

For both missions, the team gathered information on the fires as they happened, identifying hot spots using instrumentation developed at Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. They coordinated that information and imagery with Google Earth maps to provide fire commanders on the ground with data to help them map strategy for fighting the blaze, explained Brent Cobleigh, former Ikhana project manager.

Ikhana project manager Thomas Rigney Before Ikhana project manager Thomas Rigney came to Dryden, his home was threatened by a fire the Ikhana helped battle. Rigney has a special appreciation for the aircraft's capabilities and hopes to see it used to help others during future fire missions the way it helped him. NASA Photo / Tom Tschida. Rigney intends, if Dryden is asked to assist in the fire mission for a third straight year, for the Ikhana team to help fire authorities to continue developing life-saving strategies for fighting the fires. He also plans to help inform the public about the aircraft's role in keeping firefighters out of harm's way and in saving their homes.

In order for uninhabited aircraft systems, or UAS, to one day fly in the same skies as commercial aircraft, or the national airspace, the aircraft will have to be equipped with software and sensors that allow them to detect and avoid other aircraft, a future research role the Ikhana might fill, Rigney said.

The fire missions are but one example of the Ikhana's potential as a testbed for researching technologies, he said. He also envisions the UAS being used in other disasters or emergency operations as well as a platform for environmental science and study of areas of ongoing ecological concern such as ice shelves or coral reefs.

"It's exciting. It has a lot of potential," Rigney said of the UAS. "It's already showed some of its potential on the fire missions, with its ability to carry large sensors and transmit real-time images to the ground. I'm also impressed by the Fiber Optic Wing Shape Sensor experiment, which is happening on the Ikhana now." (See related story.)

Data obtained through that experiment, he said, could have applications for all aircraft as well as in adaptive control on general commercial aircraft, driving important advances in technology used to detect, identify and correct operational problems in flight.

An Invaluable Tool

Dryden's Ikhana surveys fires during the Southern California wildfire emergency Dryden's Ikhana surveys fires during the Southern California wildfire emergency last fall. The Ikhana team anticipates a second year of fire missions this summer. NASA Photo / Jim Ross. As proven in the fire missions, the Ikhana is an excellent sensor platform, said Vince Ambrosia, senior research scientist at California State University, Monterey Bay, and at Ames.

"It's beyond the capability of manned platforms," he said of the work performed with the UAS. "It presents the ability to scramble a UAV when you need it, over critical events, and be able to linger over those critical events for a long period of time to monitor conditions. Ikhana fits that niche perfectly."

For fire missions, a reliable airborne science sensor system in use by NASA for decades was repackaged to operate autonomously, or via remote control from the Ikhana. Called the Autonomous Modular Scanner-Wildfire, the Ames-developed sensor can sense heat with two of its 12 channels, both of which are calibrated to measure temperatures from one-half degree to 1,000 degrees Centigrade, Ambrosia said.

"They're perfect and unique for assessing fires and burning conditions and, because Ikhana missions pose no physical threat to a pilot, volcanology," he added.

Sensor image of hot spots during the Grass Valley/Slide Fire near Lake Arrowhead/Running Springs A sensor on board the Ikhana recorded this image of the Grass Valley/Slide Fire near Lake Arrowhead/Running Springs in the San Bernardino Mountains. The Ikhana carried sophisticated sensors that "peered" through the smoke and haze to reveal hot spots. Photo Courtesy Ames/Ikhana Team/Google Earth. The instrument, with its three scanning heads, ultimately could be used for missions as diverse as calibrating and validating satellites, monitoring wildfires, assessing vegetation, ocean and atmospheric monitoring and study of volcanic plumes - all of which could be accomplished with the Ikhana, he said.

These are just some of the ways that the UAS could be tapped by customers seeking to use and learn more about uninhabited air systems for monitoring, surveillance and science needs.

NOAA Missions

Another potential customer/partner for work with the Ikhana is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA's Lt. Cmdr. Phil Hall is currently on a three-year assignment to Dryden to learn more about UAS operations. He serves as Ikhana deputy project manager and has worked hard to get up to speed with his new assignment.

"I was pretty overwhelmed by the technology. It was a steep learning curve and I'm still learning," Hall said.

"The systems, subsystems and all the technology - the project even has a different language - is very complicated. I'm impressed with the competency of the people on the team and the people on the (flight) reviews. It's really clear that everything is looked at thoroughly and nothing is left to chance."

NOAA is interested in partnering with NASA to learn about uninhabited aircraft systems, Hall said. After all, fiscal year 2008 was the first time NOAA allocated funding - $3 million - for uninhabited aircraft, he said. NOAA's interest is with missions involving hurricanes, weather and climate. NOAA also will be involved with the science payloads for a NASA Global Hawk mission scheduled for the spring of 2009.

"We're in a learning phase and determining where we can use UAS aircraft. We need to determine where they can help in our mission of data collection and operations and how that will augment our fleet.

"I feel like I'm in the UAS nexus by participating with NASA," Hall said.

The Mobile UAS System

In addition to the Ikhana's ability to fly a diverse range of missions, it's also mobile and capable of flying day-and-night cycles totaling 24 hours, Cobleigh said. The aircraft flies at altitudes of more than 40,000 feet, depending on payload and mission parameters.

The Ikhana's versatility allows the system to be deployed to remote areas of the world where it could be used for volcano and ocean studies, emergency response and technology development efforts like collision avoidance, he said.

Ikhana crew chief Joe Kinn described how the aircraft is prepared for a remote mission.

"For transport we'll pull the wings, the rudder, the tails and the prop and we'll use a crane to pick it up and put it into what we call 'the coffin' - essentially, a big container - to transport the airplane. It (the coffin) will support the fuselage - after we lift it with the crane and retract the landing gear - and the rudder and tails," Kinn said.

"There's a separate container for the prop. That's basically how we transport it. It will all fit in a C-130, a C-17, a C-141, a C-5 or on a flatbed truck. The ground station also is self contained," he added.

Ikhana is remarkable not only for the primarily composite materials of which it is made, Kinn noted, but also because a majority of the aircraft is fully electric - the only hydraulics on the aircraft are for brakes. That translates to greatly reduced maintenance.

Transferring Information

While the aircraft is unique for many of its physical qualities, it's what's on the inside that counts in moving information to the end user, said Russ James, Dryden range systems engineer.

"You get immediate feedback, positive or negative, on the quality of data that's being collected. The pilots are flying, and the researchers in the back (of the ground station) are telling them in near-real time if they want another pass over the area," James said.

The information on fire missions collected by the UAS is relayed through a Ku satellite communications link - essentially, a big satellite dish used to move information, he said.

"There was some preprocessing going on aboard the vehicle - on the payload itself - so that when the data got to the ground station it was immediately useful. Then it went down a dedicated Internet connection to the end users, so the fire commander was receiving the information in seven minutes," James said, adding that the Ku satellite link, like other Ikhana components, is fully portable.

"When we flew the Santa Barbara fire - the very first fire mission (last summer) - I got word, secondhand, that the incident commander reported because the smoke was so dense and they didn't know where the fire was, he was planning to send crews into an area where they would have been in harm's way if it hadn't been for the imagery he received from Ikhana," James said.

Adding Capability

The aircraft's array of capabilities could be expanded later this year when research begins on the Airborne Research Test System, or ARTS III, a third-generation system. Previous generations were used at Dryden to investigate technologies such as the Flush Air Data system algorithms on the F/A-18 (no. 845) and neural network control systems on the F-15 (no. 837), said Yohan Lin, Ikhana chief engineer.

The ARTS III was designed as a research system for use in conducting advanced experiments. It could be configured, for example, with software to allow "intelligent" mission management on the Ikhana so the vehicle can search autonomously for forest fires, Lin explained. Personnel at the U.S Forest Service command center would be able to request that the aircraft survey the highest-priority fires by pointing and clicking on them on a map. This information would be sent to the vehicle.

The ARTS intelligent mission algorithms, along with instrumentation on board the Ikhana then would "manage" its own mission by mapping an efficient route, flying there, and surveying the fires.

"Think of it as a virtual onboard pilot," Lin said. "The ARTS III is engaged by the pilot in the ground station and control of the aircraft is given to the ARTS. The aircraft will stay with the priorities and execute the mission.

"However, before it works like that, there will be more engineering and a number of modifications to the ground control and aircraft software. The ARTS III is a flexible system and this is just one facet of what it can do. System health monitoring and collision-avoidance maneuvering are other possibilities."

Whatever the Ikhana's next mission or future uses, one thing is certain - it will all play out on the forefront of technology.

Just the Facts

For more information: call the Dryden Strategic Communications Office at 661-276-3449

Ikhana information: http://www.nasa.gov/centers/dryden/aircraft/Ikhana/index.html

Ikhana images: http://www.dfrc.nasa.gov/Gallery/Photo/Ikhana/HTML/index.html

Jay Levine
X-Press Editor