Evolution of an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Science Mission Capability


Research Staff: Steven S. Wegener

The year 2001 was a year of significant progress in the development of a capability to conduct airborne science missions from Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV).

This project, supports NASA goals in the Aero-Space Technology (Code R) and Earth Science (Code Y) Enterprises. Code R activities are funded by the Environmental Research Aircraft and Sensor Technology (ERAST) program. The Code Y activities support the Sub-orbital Science Program.

The Aero-Space Technology ERAST Program is designed to bring focus to critical technology development and flight demonstration that reduce the technical and economic risk of using remotely piloted aircraft as a means to collect scientific data in a timely and cost-effective manner. The Earth Science Division supports ERAST by developing airborne science payloads and flight demonstration missions.

The Earth Science Enterprise (ESE), with the charter to study the Earth systems that drive our environment from the unique vantage point of space, depends on airborne studies to validate spaceborne measurement and modeling efforts. UAVs have the potential to make airborne measurements in way not possible from conventional aircraft, flying long endurance and dangerous missions. The ESE has created the UAV Science Demonstration Program at the Ames Research Center, in an effort to gain operational experience to evaluate the Earth science research and application value of these platforms.

UAVs, as evolving technology, have special needs in order to become viable and productive platforms. The UAV science mission demonstrations, managed by this project, are the only civil UAV applications being conducted to evolve the operational experience base required to develop the regulatory (airspace management and vehicle certification) framework and market perceptions.

In 2001, the ESE solicited science and application proposals utilizing UAVs as the airborne platform. Eleven high priority proposals were selected to conduct Implementation Studies to reduce risk, and revised proposals were requested, reflecting the lessons learned in the implementation study. Final evaluation s led to two proposals being selected and awarded. These studies include the "Altus Cumulus Electrification Study (ACES)" science mission to investigate lightning relationships and storm morphology, and the "Coffee Harvest Optimization Using UAV Platforms for the Acquisition of High Spatial Resolution Real-Time Multispectral Imagery" utilizing a solar electric UAV. The Earth Science Enterprise now has added UAVs to the stable of platforms available for airborne science and applications.

Another activity under the evolution of a UAV Science Mission Capability project included the First Response Experiment (FiRE) (Figure 1). This effort was designed to put geo-registered multi-spectral imagery for a UAV in the hands of disaster managers in near real-time. In September the Altus UAV (Figure 2) , carrying the Airborne Infra—Red, Disaster Assessment System (AIRDAS), and a satellite communications system, acquired an image of a controlled burn near the El Mirage airport (Figure 3), and placed a JPEG on the World Wide Web (WWW) within three minutes. A geo-registered GIS image was then developed and placed on the WWW with in an additional six minutes (Figure 4). This is the only civilian airborne payload that can provide geo-registered multi-spectral imagery in near real-time.


[close-up of Altus ]

Figure 1. S. Wegener, at El Mirage, CA, showing the relative size of the Altus UAV which was used during the FiRE demonstration flight.



[Altus flies over So. CA]

Figure 2. Altus, carrying satellite communications antenna forward of wing on fuselage, flying over southern California hills.




[Altus flying controlled burn]

Figure 3. Altus flying the controlled burn during demonstration flight at El Mirage, CA.

[test fire bands]

Figure 4. Three color image showing AIRDAS quicklook data over General Atomics' test range in El Mirage, CA. Controlled burn appears as the bright yellow spot in the center of the image.


Point of Contact: Steven S. Wegener, 650/604-6274, swegener@mail.arc.nasa.gov