Capstone UAS project explores land, sea, air possibilities

  • Published
  • By Don Branum
  • Air Force Academy Public Affairs
At an airfield about a mile and a half north of the B-52 static display here, a much smaller aircraft takes flight from an asphalt landing strip called "Aardvark." The remote-controlled plane, measuring about 5 feet from nose to tail with a wingspan of about 8 feet, leaps off the ground, lurches dangerously downward and to the left, then straightens out and climbs at a steep 45-degree angle toward the cloud ceiling about 1,000 feet above.

"Oh, my God, how did that happen?" asks a cadet on the plane's design team, either agape at the wind gust that nearly smacked the plane back onto the runway or incredulous that the plane actually made it into the air. But after the rough takeoff, it settles into a smooth orbit around a target on the ground, passing imagery and telemetry to a ground station in a nearby trailer.

The aircraft and its team of four cadets will travel to the U.S. Military Academy in early May. There, the Air Force Academy cadets will work with Naval Academy midshipmen and West Point cadets, who have designed unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) and unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), to track and intercept a target.

"We'll be looking for an enemy ship," explained Cadet 1st Class Amy Abraham, an electrical engineering major with Cadet Squadron 12. "Our (remotely piloted aircraft) will send data back to us, and we'll give that data to the USV so it can intercept the target. Alternately, if the target docks and releases a runner, we can relay data to the UGVs so they can intercept the runner."

The team will focus on catching the ship before it docks, however.

"The runner's too small for us to track at the moment," Abraham said.

The project includes Abraham and three others: Cadets 1st Class Danny Harold from CS 05, Michael McClain from CS 24 and Tristan Latchu from CS 06. Its goal is to help the cadets become more familiar with unmanned aerial systems' capabilities. To that end, the group traveled to France over the summer of 2011 to work on a micro-UAS project and went to Creech Air Force Base, Nev., earlier in the semester to learn more about UAS operations, including the process of transferring control of the aircraft from pilots on the ground in deployed locations to Airmen at Creech AFB, who fly the aircraft to conduct persistent surveillance and strike operations.

"They can't control takeoff and landing from Creech because there's a delay" in both the video feed and the command signals, Abraham said. Signals must travel 23,000 miles into space, 50,000 miles or more across a satellite communications network like Wideband Global SATCOM, then 23,000 miles back to a ground control station at Creech AFB.

The distance results in a delay of about a second in each direction. So Airmen conduct time-sensitive operations like takeoff and landing in the theater of operations, while Airmen at Creech control the aircraft once it is actually on station.

The Airmen at Creech also shared stories with the cadets, including one that stuck with Abraham.

"They were in a meeting, and an Australian special forces soldier came into the meeting and thanked them on his way home from a deployment because they saved his life," she said.

UAS capstone programs have existed in one form or another for at least five years, but only in the past three years or so have they been able to fly on a routine basis, said Dr. Daniel Pack, the director of the Academy's Center for UAS Research. Cadets work closely with full-time researchers on their projects that are sponsored by the Defense Department using Defense Research and Engineering grants.

The research ties into the DOD's plans to increase its use of unmanned vehicles -- by as much as 45 percent between now and 2022, according to an April 10 report by Bloomberg. That means there'll be no shortage of cadet-built remotely piloted aircraft looking to get off the ground anytime soon.