Competition was in high gear at Kennedy Space Center recently when three teams piloted unique remote-controlled and autonomous aircraft through a demanding series of search-and-rescue tasks, capping off months of work that pushed NASA engineers outside their usual specialties.
Using helicopters, rotorcraft and a built-from-scratch, radio-controlled airplane, the teams scanned a mock airplane crash site with sensors and software they developed and installed in the aircraft. The flights took place at the north end of the Shuttle Landing Facility at a time when the airspace around it was closed so the craft wouldn’t interfere with runway operations.
Although human operators were at the flight controls of the aircraft, the sensors had to identify the aircraft, a replica “black box” and several crash dummies. Later, aircraft were sent on endurance runs.
NASA field centers Kennedy, Johnson Space Center and Marshall Space Flight Center took part in the competition while engineers from Ames Research Center, Dryden Flight Research Center and Langley Research Center judged the results.
“There was a plaque, but other than bragging rights, that was about it,” said Mark Ross, a NASA test director who coordinated the competition.
The technology could be implemented in a number of different ways, including locating a crew returning from space or rescuing stranded hikers, pilots or boaters. The real point of the competition, though, was to add new skills to established engineers’ portfolios and to show young engineers a taste of the process that goes into developing a full project.
“There was a lot of realization that this was a rare opportunity to see things from cradle to grave, to see something from idea to actually flying,” Ross said. “They also learned a good bit about the systems engineering process, which was the whole intent behind this and how to apply it in a practical way.”
Kennedy’s Rocket University developed the fixed-wing, remote-control aircraft used in the competition. The group built the airframe from scratch, along with designing the software to operate it.
Engineers with Kennedy Space Center’s ‘Rocket University’ prepare their remote-controlled aircraft for flight.”The whole purpose is to use low-cost, high-capability equipment to get hands-on experience,” said Steve Sullivan, chief engineer for the Kennedy team. “If you go to class, build something and fly it, that stays with you. I think it keeps your brain sharp.”