NASA researches unmanned aircraft system close to the Central Valley

About 90 minutes from the Central Valley deep in the Mohave Desert sits Edwards Air Force Base.
November 18, 2013 2:58:11 PM PST
About 90 minutes from the Central Valley deep in the Mojave Desert sits Edwards Air Force Base. While the vast base is home to hundreds of military families it also hosts NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center. One of its most prized "researchers" is an unmanned aircraft system, or UAS, called the Global Hawk.

"An air craft like global hawk is a very sophisticated system. This aircraft literally will fly itself from take-off to landing and there are pilots on a ground station who actually tell the aircraft where to go but ultimately the air craft can do the whole mission by itself," NASA Global Hawk Project Manager Chris Naftel said.

From wingtip to wingtip the UAS measures 116 feet wide. Many associate unmanned aircraft systems with the military drones responsible for spy missions, and strikes against suspected terrorists. But at NASA, drone is practically a bad word.

"I think drones have a, well UAVs are now synonymous with drones I think it's kind of well you see the headline drones it kind of jumps out at people," Director Of Research and Engineering, Brad Flick said.

These shiny, white, 27,000 pound machines can fly up to 65,000 feet for 30 hours in one flight, giving researchers endless data to study earth science. Dryden technicians work to install sensors that measure the earth's climate, capture data in hurricanes or other severe storms and emit radar used for tracking weather. No surveillance devices or weapons are on board these aircrafts.

"We don't fly any military sensors. We are gathering data used by scientists at NASA, at NOAA, universities, private companies," Naftel said.

While the instruments on board the Global Hawk differ from its military counterparts, the technology is exactly the same.

"Off the assembly line. It's just like they were building predators for the air force. NASA procured one really to do aeronautics and science research but basically the same airplane. We use it differently," Flick said.

Many UAS and even space shuttles are tested in a model airplane lab. Engineers test the technology and even use a "Control room" to pilot the aircrafts.

"From a cost perspective you can prove out certain elements of aeronautical flight using model aircraft," operations engineer Michael Marston said

While NASA uses the Global Hawks for science here at Dryden it's also researching how to apply Drone technology to our everyday lives. One project is focusing on developing technology to give commercial pilots more help in avoiding midair collisions.

NASA project manager Laurie Grindle says the FAA has legislation allowing UAS to fly the same routes as commercial airlines starting in 2015.

"We're developing different technologies and then we're testing them in a series of integrated tests that will allow us to give them results to figure out what the right regulations need to be," UAS in the NAS project manager Laurie Grindle said.

So is a Thanksgiving trip in a pilotless aircraft a possibility? Researchers here at NASA's Dryden say it's the wave of the future. And they're doing the research to make it possible.

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