Leaping into the ‘now’: Cadets team with technology experts to help RPAs navigate bad weather

  • Published
  • By Amy Gillentine
  • Office of Research
Thanks to an ongoing collaboration between Defense Department contractors, the Air Force and the Academy, progress is now being made on a problem that's plagued the remotely piloted aircraft community for more than a decade: how to make the aircraft less vulnerable to bad weather.

The Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Innovations Branch has teamed with Pemdas Technologies and Innovations, and the Academy's RPA program on a project called "Nowcasting."

The project relies on placing very small weather sensors that "can be stuck anywhere - on anything that moves" on the RPA, said Col. John McCurdy, the Academy's RPA programs director.

"(We're creating) a more complete weather picture for the pilots of remotely piloted and potentially even traditional aircraft; we're creating unique opportunities to get cadets involved in real operational tests and evaluations in a very agile and realistic environment that saves the DOD time and resources," McCurdy said.

The sensors can use other less typical sources of information as well, said Larry Stutzriem, former director of plans, policy and strategy at the North American Aerospace Defense Command and an RPA systems innovator.

"For instance, air traffic control radar strips out most weather information, but the Nowcasting system can use it to give a very detailed picture," he said. "To complete the weather picture, sensors can also gather data from non-traditional sources, such as radar or satellites that don't typically supply weather information."

These sensors gauge the temperature, humidity and atmospheric pressure the RPA could experience during flight, while ground-based sensors measure factors such as wind speed and lightning, Stutzriem said.

"Nowcasting works to fuse all the possible sources of the environmental information - from current locations to satellites, the whole range," he said. "That way, we gain a highly accurate weather picture that is sent directly to the Air Operations Center and to the pilots."

Stutzriem said Air Force ISR chose the Academy for the project largely because of McCurdy's efforts, which include his experience training and certifying cadets to be RPA pilots and instructors. McCurdy also opened the Air Power Battle Lab, which allows cadets and researchers to monitor the Pemdas sensors much more closely. The lab is set up to mimic those in the operational Air Force.

"My hat's off to USAFA leadership," Stutzriem said. "They've replicated the RPA enterprise to substantially benefit the cadet experience. Cadets are getting a full picture of the battle space - not just what a pilot sees, not just what the operations side sees, but the entire picture - which is something I didn't learn about on this scale until I was a colonel."

Cadets have been flying RPAs for about five years now, but the program isn't just about flying - it also teaches cadets how RPAs fit into a larger operational, combat framework, Stutzriem said.

"It's really going to foster a sense of innovation based on an understanding of the greater air operations system," he said. "That in turn will produce a more air-power savvy cadet and officer."

Teaming with cadets and Academy faculty also lowers the cost of the project, Stutzriem said.

"In my view, we're going to be able to create this product much more cheaply and much more quickly at the Academy," he said. "That's because they already have the RPAs, they already have the operations center, the network enclaves and the software. And we have the very fine minds of the faculty and cadets - this is going to be a big assist to the effectiveness of ISR involving RPAs and for the Air Force."

The project could also have commercial implications as well.

"Imagine if airlines had a more complete, totally up-to-date weather threat picture in three dimensions,' said Brian Griffith, a Pemdas contractor who regularly works with cadets. "It could decrease the number of cancellations and delays, if they knew exactly when and where they could fly over or around a storm."