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Vulture Venture

By Janet Perez

NMSU lands support role for major DARPA project

With a wingspan of 400 feet, the Vulture will be the largest unmanned aircraft ever flown in the world, but for New Mexico State University’s Physical Science Laboratory it’s only the latest in a long string of groundbreaking projects PSL has been working on for decades.

On Sept. 30, NMSU announced that PSL had entered a multi-million-dollar contract with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to assist in the development and flight-testing of the Vulture unmanned aerial vehicle, the prime contractor of which is Boeing. Along with its 400-foot wingspan, the Vulture II will weigh between 5,000 and 7,000 pounds — light by other aircraft standards.

“This is our first contract with DARPA,” said Steve Hottman, associate dean and deputy director for research at PSL. “To be able to be in a relationship with DARPA is very important for the university. When you think of what they are trying to design and a platform that can remain up in the atmosphere for five years, that’s a lot of design challenges and it’s pretty exciting stuff.”

If successful, the Vulture program could perform intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and communication missions. The aircraft will be fueled by solar cells and an energy storage system that utilizes hydrogen. The craft will be designed and built by Boeing.

“The primary thing we will be doing is acting as a test location for DARPA,” Hottman said. “In addition to that we are giving guidance to Boeing and DARPA about design aspects of the aircraft related to airworthiness and communications links. We’re actually responsible for the airborne safety and the ground safety.”

Ground safety will be especially important, as the craft will be utilizing hydrogen. PSL will be responsible for ensuring personnel are trained to detect and deal with any hydrogen leaks.

While Boeing is constructing the mammoth Vulture, PSL will be building a hangar and a runway at the Jornada Experimental Range, northeast of Las Cruces, to accommodate the craft. The vehicle will require a 3,000-foot diameter circle for level takeoffs. The U.S. Department of Agriculture owns the land where the hangar and airport will be built, and Dave May, deputy director of Global UAS Strategic Initiatives for PSL, credits NMSU’s good relationship with the agency for getting permission to use the property. PSL has helped the USDA in the operations of its own unmanned aircraft.

Vulture Two

NMSU’s Physical Science Laboratory has entered a multi-million-dollar contract with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to assist in the development and flight-testing of the Vulture unmanned aerial vehicle. The Vulture II will have a 400-foot wingspan and weigh between 5,000 and 7,000 pounds. Boeing will build the aircraft.

Construction of the hangar will be in 2013. Boeing then will transport the Vulture in sections to Jornada for assembly. PSL’s involvement in the project will continue into 2014, when flight-testing is expected to end.

“We’re working very closely with the design team at Boeing and DARPA, as well as NASA,” May said. “A lot of our expertise is really knowing what is going to be acceptable to the FAA; being able to say, ‘Here’s a concern for us.’”

Along with its expertise with Federal Aviation Administration regulations, two other major factors played a role in PSL landing the Vulture contract.

“One of the reasons they picked us was cost,” Hottman said. “We’re a better value for DARPA. There were some tremendous cuts (to the program), so they were looking at where they could do things more cost effectively.”

The third deciding factor is NMSU’s operation of the only FAA-authorized UAS Flight Test Center in the United States. The center allows UAS operations in the National Airspace System or civilian airspace. Data is collected during unmanned flights in public, non-restricted airspace to assist FAA in the development of standards and regulations for UAS operators. Under the FAA agreement, the Flight Test Center can operate flights across more than 15,000 square miles of airspace in southwestern New Mexico.

May said he expects PSL’s involvement in the Vulture program to not only increase the department members’ expertise, but also continue the upward momentum of NMSU’s reputation in the unmanned aircraft field.

“Anytime you have an ongoing operation you’re getting valuable experience; you’re getting your name out there and people are saying, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve read about that program.’ Success breeds success,” May said.

While the Vulture currently is the most high-profile project NMSU/PSL is working on, it is by no means the only one.

Spyder OPB aircraft

The Spyder OPV aircraft is one of the models of unmanned aerial systems flown by PSL. The UAS field is one of the fastest-growing industries in the world, with spending over the next decade expected to double from $4.9 billion to $11.5 billion annually.

In 1999, the Unmanned Aerial Systems Technical Analysis and Applications Center, UAS TAAC for short, was established to promote the safe integration of unmanned aircraft systems in the National Air Space. For a UAS to be flown in the U.S. outside of military airspace, a certificate of authorization or an experimental airworthiness certificate must be issued by the FAA. Certificates of Authorization have been obtained by NMSU to operate the Aerostar and Orbiter UAS. In addition, TAAC conducts flight operations within restricted airspace, is involved in testing various UAS platforms and has produced a roadmap that serves as a framework for UAS certification.

Along with its domestic projects, PSL has embarked on several international programs over the years.

“In the past, we actually traveled to Afghanistan and set up an operation with the Dutch government under contract to the Israelis,” Hottman said. “For that we had Department of Defense and State Department approval.”

NMSU/PSL also owns six unmanned aircraft manufactured in Israel, and department members have spoken at conferences across the world. PSL currently is working with the governments of the Netherlands and England, as well as NASA and the Defense Department, to create a system to deal with wayward unmanned aircraft systems.

“If you lose a communications link with an unmanned aircraft, right now the manufacturers have some general rules these things follow,” Hottman said. “One manufacturer may have one vehicle turn in a right-hand circle incline, someone else may have a left-hand circle incline, somebody may go dive and do something else.

“One of the activities we’re looking at is coming up with a consistent response, so that if you lose your communications link everyone would have agreement across the world that these unmanned aircraft are going to have a particular behavior,” he continued. “So air traffic controllers, whether they be the FAA here or the CAA in Canada or something in Europe or even (the Department of Defense), will all have an expectation that if somebody hears system X located at coordinates Y and Z is in a lost-link situation, they immediately know the behavior of the craft and can move other aircraft away from it.”

Remaining at the forefront of the UAS field is critical for NMSU/PSL, as it is one of the fastest-growing industries in the world. According to a 2010 report by the Teal Group, an aerospace and defense industry analysis firm, UAS spending over the next decade is expected to double from $4.9 billion to $11.5 billion annually for a total 10-year expenditure of more than $80 billion. The market for payloads also is expected to double to $6 billion annually.

However, this growing field faces many obstacles, including a lack of regulatory guidance and policies for routine operations in civilian airspace; airworthiness and maintenance; pilot certification; flight operations and collision avoidance; insufficient bandwidth; high insurance rates; and technological challenges.

NMSU/PSL has been working with the industry, particularly through its annual UAS TAAC Conference, to facilitate dialogue and partnerships aimed at finding solutions.

“We have been able to build a reputation for ourselves through UAS TAAC. That certainly has given us plenty of exposure,” Hottman said. “There’s a respect and acknowledgement of the capabilities we have here.”


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