NASA Advances State-of-the-Art Airborne Capabilities and Platforms with New Drone Aircraft

NASA scientists are always known to be on the quest for new platforms from which they can carry out their research. These scientists can now obtain benefits from two agency-developed unmanned aerial systems (UASs), that according to some represent the future for drone aircraft.

The VA001 can carry 35 pounds of payload, flying at 500 to 15,000 feet above sea level. Its primary attraction — and the primary reason NASA funded its development through the SBIR program — is its ability to carry out research over some of the most forbidding locations on Earth. Credits: Jeremy Novara/Vanilla Aircraft

Unlike most unmanned aircraft systems that are commercially available, Vanilla Aircraft’s VA001 and Black Swift Technologies’ S2 small Unmanned Aircraft System (sUAS), were intentionally designed for scientific investigations.

Both are capable of providing one-of-a-kind capabilities that represent a major success for NASA’s Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) program, which funded their development, stated Geoff Bland, a research engineer at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

Our goal always is to advance state-of-the-art airborne capabilities and platforms tailored to the needs of our scientists, the SBIR program offered us an outstanding venue for engaging small businesses in our quest to develop new tools for gathering scientific data.

Geoff Bland, a research engineer at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia

The aircraft, presently operational after months of development, offers the scientific community easy-to-use, complementary capabilities at a lower cost.

To Antarctica and Back

Vanilla Aircraft’s VA001 offers a case in point.

Smaller than NASA’s Global Hawk unmanned aircraft, which needs a comparatively large team to operate, the VA001 is capable of carrying 35 pounds of payload and fly at 500 to 15,000 feet above sea level. Its key attraction — and the reason NASA funded its development via the SBIR program — is its potential to perform research over the most unfriendly locations on Earth. Additionally, it can cover thousands of square miles of treacherous terrain and bone-chilling temperatures of -40 oF in a single flight.

It operates on jet-grade fuel, which comprises of anti-icing additives and corrosion inhibitors crucial to operations in Antarctica or the Arctic. “It was an important part of the aircraft’s design to fly under the toughest and coldest conditions,” said Joe Famiglietti, the technology-infusion manager for Goddard’s SBIR/Small Business Technology Transfer programs.

Since NASA’s opening SBIR investment in the aircraft’s development, the Virginia-based Vanilla Aircraft has reaped support from the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), which funded a second prototype and also test flights. The VA001, in one non-stop test flight, flew for 56 hours on a single tank of fuel, demonstrating that the aircraft is capable of meeting both DoD’s and NASA’s needs, Bland said.

The dream mission would be for the VA001 to leave the Wallops Flight Facility, fly over Antarctica, and then return after two days of mapping the changing ice. We could do this on demand for quick response to changing phenomena over the poles,

Geoff Bland, a research engineer at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia

Packed and Ready to Go

The Colorado-based Black Swift provides a totally different set of capabilities with its sUAS. Originally, the company developed the aircraft to fit within a vehicle trunk, take off anywhere, and then fly up to 90 minutes over 705 acres, with a full payload.

“The company did more than just develop a unique aircraft,” Famiglietti said. The company also incorporated a specified radiometer established by the University of Colorado in a partnership with Black Swift. Its miniature antennas are employed for detecting proportions of energy reflected from the objects over which the sUAS flies.

Scientists can now use the energy readings, along with various other aircraft sensors, in order to differentiate between water contained within the vegetation or soil. With this data, NASA scientists will be able to better understand soil-moisture levels and ground-truth NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive satellite data that scientists use for monitoring drought, assisting in crop productivity, and predicting flooding.

The sUAS has a modular “plug-and-fly” instrument capability and can be toted to almost any location, and because of this its use is not limited to soil-moisture measurements, however.

NASA scientist Miguel Román at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland is presently using the sUAS in order to map vegetation and climate dynamics under a pathfinding mission known as MALIBU, short for the Multi Angle Imaging Bidirectional Reflectance Distribution Function sUAS.

In 2016, his team incorporated MALIBU’s two multispectral imagers onto the platform at varied angles to accurately match the viewing geometry of polar-orbiting satellite images. It proved to be extremely effective that he and his team were able to attain a second platform, Román said.

The aircraft is constantly evolving, and will be capable of observing volcanic plumes in the future, said Black Swift Founder and Chief Executive Officer Jack Elston, a MALIBU partner.

Through NASA’s SBIR program, we are enabling new types of science, these aircraft represent the future.

Geoff Bland, a research engineer at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia

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