Meet NASA’s Futuristic Drone Research Lab

Last week, NASA and AUVSI invited a carefully selected, elite group of media (which obviously included IEEE Spectrum) to take a tour of the Unmanned Aircraft Systems programs at NASA Dryden. The Dryden Flight Research Center (DFRC) is located approximately in the middle of nowhere, inside Edwards Air Force Base on a huge dry lake bed out in the Mojave desert. The remoteness of the area, plus the availability of over 100 square kilometers of empty flat lake bed to land on if necessary, makes Dryden a fantastic place to test out all kinds of futuristic and occasionally bizarre aircraft. And we got to meet a few of them.
Let’s start with Ikhana, Dryden’s Predator B UAV. You’re probably familiar with the Predator drone, but the Predator B is significantly larger and more powerful. The military’s version of this UAV is the MQ-9 Reaper, which is capable of carrying 15 times the payload at three times the speed of the Predator A, for up to 30 hours at a stretch. “Ikhana” is a Choctaw Native American word that means “intelligent, conscious, or aware,” and appropriately enough, Dryden uses Ikhana primarily for remote sensing and monitoring. The drone is often used to map wildfires, for example.

This is what flying Ikhana is like, almost. The setup above is a simulator, and includes features that you won’t find in an actual Predator control station, like a wide angle forward view. At Dryden, they experiment with things like this to see how valuable different cameras or data might be to remote pilots. In other words, they’re trying to figure out what displays a drone pilot needs to effectively operate in national airspace.

When flying Ikhana around Dryden, pilots get to use a very low-latency radio connection for direct control using a joystick, just like in a video game. Away from Dryden, Ikhana is communicated with over a satellite connection, and flies autonomously via waypoint control. It’s still possible to use a joystick to control the drone in an emergency, but the 1.5 second latency makes it “basically unflyable.” Pilots practice it anyway, though, just in case there’s an emergency and they need to land the drone by hand.

 

This particular aircraft was the very first Global Hawk ever made, and had its first flight back in 1998. It’s quite a performer, though, able to cruise at 65,000 feet with a range of about 11,000 nautical miles. Even while based out of Dryden, it has no problem heading into the Atlantic or the Caribbean for extended weather monitoring, coming back home up to 30 hours later.

With a wingspan of 116 feet (that’s longer than a basketball court), the Global Hawk has nearly the same wingspan as a Boeing 737, and it can haul 1,500 pounds of payload, including deployable sensors that it can drop into particularly bad weather. For the last month or so, NASA has been partnering with NOAA’s National Hurricane Center to forecast hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico.

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