Inside Nasa’s hurricane drone lab

Take a behind the scenes tour of the US space agency’s unmanned aerial vehicle programme.

By Jon Stewart

Phil Hall travels the world without moving.

“The longest flight I’ve done is about 28 and a half hours,” says the US space agency pilot. “We flew from California almost to the North Pole, did two loops in the Arctic, and came back.”

Although the plane clocked up around 16,000km (10,000 miles), Hall did not move much further than the bathroom and the coffee pot down the hall.

That’s because Hall is one of Nasa’s UAV (Unmanned Autonomous Vehicle) pilots, responsible for flying the Global Hawk drones used by the agency.

These robotic craft are “piloted” by Hall and his colleagues from Nasa’s Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in California. There, pilots sit in front of banks of large screens that show the view from the nose of the craft in real time and related data about it speed, position, altitude and so on. Their job is to watch over the craft, making occasional course changes and corrections and ensuring  the giant robotic craft completes its preprogrammed mission.

Prepare for turbulence

UAVs are perhaps best known for their use by the military, but they are increasingly finding civilian uses.  In the United States alone the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) predicts that there will be 30,000 drones in the country’s skies in less than 20 years.

Nasa uses them for earth science, flying missions to collect data about the planet. Since the two craft first came into service in 2009, they have flown around the Pacific, cruised over the Arctic and collected data from a host of places previously too dangerous or too remote for other scientific craft flown by Nasa, such as a civilian version of the military U2 craftknown as the ER-2.

“One of the limitations of the U2 is its flight duration,” says Hall. “It only has one pilot, who has to get into a very expensive pressurised suit and get into the aircraft. With this aeroplane we can fly for up to 30 hours with the pilots on the ground.”

The Global Hawk – built by Northrop Grumman – is a bulbous-looking craft more commonly flown by the military for high-altitude reconnaissance. The two owned by Nasa are actually the first and sixth planes ever built and were used to prove the concept of the vehicle.

They each have a wingspan of 35m (115ft), meaning they rival a Boeing 737 for hanger space. The body looks short by comparison at 13.5m (44ft)and contains a bay a bay at the front that allows them to be equipped with a variety of instruments, depending on the mission. A single Rolls Royce jet engine powers the plane. Its 20,000km (11,000 nautical mile) range and ability to fly as high as 18,000m (60,000ft) means it can be used for a wide variety of measuring, monitoring, and observing missions.

In August this year, the craft will fly over the Atlantic, as the hurricane season goes into full force. The Global Hawk can fly over a weather system for around 15 hours, which will give scientists an unprecedented view of these natural phenomenon.

“During that time we can actually see how the hurricane changes,” says Hall. “It gives us a glimpse into areas of discovery that we haven’t had before.”

The plan is to use both of Nasa’s drones on those future missions. One will look at the inner core of the hurricane, and the other wider environment, dropping disposable instruments to charecterise the wind fields.  The delicate dance of very expensive machinery and the full force of mother nature will be the ultimate test for the planes.

But for the pilots, it will just be another day in the offic


Take off The X-47B was commissioned by the US navy to demonstrate the ability of autonomous unmanned aircraft to take-off and land from air craft carriers. (Copyright: Northrop Grumman)
By Sharon Weinberger

The US Navy’s cutting-edge robot fighter plane aims to be the first unmanned aerial vehicle to take-off and land at sea.

As a fighter plane prepares to take off from a naval carrier at sea, the pilot and deck crew go through a tightly choreographed series of hand signals to tell each other they are ready to launch. It ends with a final “salute” from the pilot to indicate that the aircraft is ready to be catapulted off the deck.

But when the X-47B, the US Navy’s newest prototype combat aircraft, prepares for its first carrier launch early next year, there will be no salute.  That’s because there will also be no pilot. Instead, the X-47B will blink its wingtip navigation lights, a robotic nod to the human salute (and mimicking what the Navy does for night launches), before the catapult officer presses the launch button, and the robotic aircraft is flung off the front of the ship

After years of development, and recent land-based tests, the highly anticipated carrier flight for this stealthy, tailless, unmanned drone is imminent. “It should be in early in 2013,” says Carl Johnson, vice president and program manager at defence firm Northrop Grumman, which builds the X-47B. “We have to coordinate ship schedules as well as all the other airspace issues.”

The X-47B is a strike fighter-sized prototype drone developed as part of the United States Navy’s UCAS-D (Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration) programme, which aims to develop technologies necessary to field a combat drone on carriers. As a result, it has folding wings and is built for the rigors of sea life, including salt water, deck handling and of course take-off and landing from an aircraft carrier.

Although the X-47B is a prototype, the Navy hopes to actually field operational unmanned combat aircraft on carriers by the end of the decade.

The unmanned “flying wing” aircraft, which takes some of its design cues from Northrop Grumman’s B-2 stealth bomber, is supposed to demonstrate reconnaissance and strike capabilities—it has a full-sized weapons bay, although the prototype will not fly with weapons.  And, unlike existing drones, which are usually remotely “flown” by pilots once in the air, the X-47B is designed to fly autonomously, with just the occasional click of a mouse from an operator to send it instructions.

“It’s a big deal, but it’s an extension of something that was already happening,” says Peter Singer, a senior fellow at the Brooking Institution in Washington, DC, and the author of Wired for War, a book on the military’s robotics revolution.

Forward fire

The craft was revealed in 2008 but is only now undergoing sea tests aboard the USS Harry S. Truman, including moving around on the carrier. Whilst this kind of trial may not sound remarkable, in some ways it’s one of the more challenging steps toward proving that the X-47B, which weighs in at 20,000 kg (44,000 lb) and has a 20m (62 ft) wing span, is ready for flight.

Getting around on a crowded flight deck is difficult, says Johnson, because the aircraft must maneuver very close the edge of the carrier, sometimes pivoting so that it appears that half the airplane is hanging off the ship. “The precision involved in doing that is very difficult with a pilot following directions from a person on the deck,” says Johnson. “It’s very difficult to do that as well with an unmanned system.”

As a result, the engineers have built a wireless remote control device that can be used to move the aircraft around the deck