Drone tech­nol­ogy achieves new heights at YPG

The Outpost - - Front Page - By Mark Schauer

Hu­man­ity’s first pow­ered flight in 1903 lasted for 12 sec­onds.

In 2010, the Ze­phyr un­manned air­craft stayed aloft for two straight weeks high in the airspace above U.S. Army Yuma Prov­ing Ground (YPG), set­ting a world record.

Last sum­mer, an up­graded Ze­phyr re­turned to YPG and flew con­tin­u­ously for 25 days, 23 hours, and 57 min­utes. Per­haps more sig­nif­i­cantly, the craft was able to spend its en­tire flight well above the al­ti­tudes nor­mally achieved by com­mer­cial air­planes.

“Un­like pre­vi­ous flights when the air­craft had to come down to be­tween 25,000 and 35,000 feet at night, this time we were able to stay above the weather,” said Lori Slaugh­ter, test of­fi­cer. “Our low­est al­ti­tude dur­ing the flight it­self was 55,000 feet.”

The Ze­phyr’s in­tended pur­pose is to serve as a low-cost, more-ca­pa­ble al­ter­na­tive to a spy satel­lite, able to loi­ter over the same vicin­ity for hours or days at a time. It still has the same name and mis­sion as its orig­i­nal it­er­a­tion, but boasts a slew of up­grades.

“We have brand new avion­ics that are a lot more ef­fi­cient and bet­ter-con­trolled,” said Sarah Bas­sett, pro­ject man­ager. “We have also up­dated all the so­lar pan­els and bat­ter­ies with in­creased per­for­mance. We’ve also light­ened the air­frame.”

The con­struc­tion of the Ze­phyr is min­i­mal­ist. Built of com­pos­ite car­bon fiber, the craft weighs a feather-light 100 pounds and has no wheels or land­ing gear—it is launched off of the shoul­ders and from the hands of five run­ning in­di­vid­u­als. Vir­tu­ally ev­ery square inch of the 80-foot wing­span is cov­ered by light­weight so­lar cells that charge bat­ter­ies that power twin elec­tric mo­tors. Also on­board are so­phis­ti­cated elec­tron­ics that al­low the craft to be mon­i­tored and steered from a ground con­trol sta­tion. All of this runs on the elec­tri­cal power equiv­a­lent to that needed to light a sin­gle com­mer­cial light bulb.

The Ze­phyr’s abil­ity to fly at ex­tremely high al­ti­tudes means it can safely evade bad weather while aloft. How­ever, it is vi­tal for the air­craft to per­form its as­cent and de­scent in fa­vor­able con­di­tions. An un­ex­pected de­vi­a­tion in the jet stream had forced testers to land the craft after 48 hours dur­ing a test at YPG in 2013, and all con­cerned were keen to avoid the same thing this time around.

When the team fi­nally achieved a fa­vor­able win­dow on July 11th, the craft was run down the run­way by Air­bus per­son­nel and be­gan its slow and steady as­cent into a record-break­ing flight. All was go­ing smoothly un­til the weather sit­u­a­tion de­te­ri­o­rated in Phoenix, about 175 miles away. Though this weather pat­tern had no di­rect im­pact on Yuma Prov­ing Ground, Phoenix’s Sky Har­bor Air­port was closed for land­ings and had mul­ti­ple com­mer­cial air­lin­ers cir­cling in the skies above. The Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion asked for per­mis­sion to use some of YPG’s re­stricted airspace to help al­le­vi­ate the aerial traf­fic jam that was ac­cu­mu­lat­ing in the skies above Phoenix, and YPG read­ily agreed to help. To ac­com­mo­date this, the Ze­phyr’s as­cent path had to be moved to the ex­treme south­ern border of YPG’s 2,000 square mile of re­stricted

airspace, and the craft was con­fined to a small box to con­tinue its climb. The de­vi­a­tion in the plan was com­pletely un­ex­pected, but testers took it in stride, ul­ti­mately see­ing it as an­other pos­i­tive test data point.

“We proved that we could stay away from com­mer­cial air­craft,” said Bas­sett. “We man­aged quite eas­ily to stay in a very small strip of air space and avoid the storms as we gained al­ti­tude.”

Though YPG av­er­ages 360 days of clear weather an­nu­ally and boasts sta­ble air that is per­fect for air­craft test­ing, testers had to cope with other ef­fects of the in­tense sum­mer heat. To achieve op­ti­mal per­for­mance for a test base­line, the Ze­phyr’s bat­ter­ies had to be kept at a con­stant cool tem­per­a­ture prior to flight, which meant YPG per­son­nel had to main­tain a por­ta­ble con­di­tion­ing cham­ber at all times. YPG per­son­nel also erected tar­gets across YPG’s desert ranges to give the Ze­phyr’s op­tics suite things to seek while aloft. Even erect­ing the air­craft’s ground con­trol sta­tion prior to the flight took place in ex­treme tem­per­a­tures.

“Our ground con­trol sys­tem has a lot of dishes and an­ten­nas that need to be as­sem­bled on top,” said Bas­sett. “You can’t do it at night be­cause it’s dan­ger­ous. Even early in the morn­ing, it is very hot out­side.”

While aloft, YPG per­son­nel mon­i­tored the craft’s flight at all hours of the day and night, and the Ze­phyr may have been stay aloft for an as­ton­ish­ing three months had other com­mit­ments not forced the crew to land and trans­port it for other test­ing else­where.

Mak­ing the test suc­cess­ful took the ef­forts of a mul­ti­tude of YPG of­fices and shops, and the seam­less in­ter­ac­tion to achieve the mis­sion im­pressed both the cus­tomer and the test of­fi­cer.

“It’s phe­nom­e­nal how ev­ery­one works to­gether,” said Slaugh­ter. “Ev­ery­one just comes to­gether for the mis­sion.”

In 2010, the Ze­phyr un­manned air­craft stayed aloft for two straight weeks high in the airspace above YPG, set­ting a world record. Last sum­mer, an up­graded Ze­phyr re­turned to YPG and flew con­tin­u­ously for 25 days, 23 hours, and 57 min­utes.

While aloft, YPG per­son­nel mon­i­tored the craft’s flight at all hours of the day and night. En­sur­ing the com­plex test went smoothly took the sup­port of a mul­ti­tude of YPG of­fices and shops.

(US Army pho­tos)

The Ze­phyr spent spend­ing its en­tire flight within YPG’s 2,000 square miles of re­stricted airspace at al­ti­tudes well above those nor­mally achieved by com­mer­cial air­planes.

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