'Gobble Hawk' Wins NASA High-Altitude UAV Design Competition

NASA is very proud of the Global Hawk UAVs that it uses for environmental monitoring missions like keeping track of hurricanes, among other things. We should know: we visited them last year. But Global Hawks are super expensive (between $130 and $220 million each, depending on whether or not you factor R&D cost into the mix), and while they have relatively long range and endurance, they can only stay up for about a day (28 hours) at a stretch.

So NASA wants more options, and it has turned to students for ideas. In a press release today, they've announced the winners of a competition to design high endurance uncrewed aerial systems for hurricane tracking. Coming out on top: Virginia Tech's "Gobble Hawk." Heh.

These UAVs are design concepts, and don't represent anything flying right now, or anything that will be flying soon. But, from the sound of things, the students had to crunch all the numbers to figure out how much the robots would cost to build and then support through the end of their design lives.

Accurate predictions of storm formation and growth require several days of uninterrupted observations and measurements. However, systems now in use to gather storm data, similar to the Global Hawk UAS, have a limited flight endurance of 24 hours per takeoff. Among other stringent criteria, papers submitted for the challenge had to successfully demonstrate how the team’s system design would provide persistent five-month aerial coverage over an area of the Atlantic Ocean off the west coast of Africa where tropical depressions can form into hurricanes. Through this five-month period, systems must be capable of flying non-stop a minimum of seven days.

The winner was Virginia Tech's "Gobble Hawk" (pictured above), which we're 99 percent certain is not a friendly little poke at the Global Hawk. The Gobble Hawk system is made up of two separate aircraft, designed to switch off with each other every seven days to provide continuous surveillance. The total cost would be just under $200 million, plus 10 years of operation and maintenance.

Second place went to Purdue with their OQ451-5 Trident (below). Powered by hydrogen engines, it's got seven days worth of endurance, and can be yours for just $17,000 per flight hour plus $388 million for design and production.

The University of Virginia came in third with The Big WAHOO (Worldwide Autonomous Hurricane and Oceanic Observer): also powered by hydrogen, the UAV is only $493.7 million over its 15 year operational lifetime, which is relatively low on a per-propeller cost (below).

Hydrogen is a proven idea for HALE (high altitude long endurance) UAVs; Boeing's adorably plump Phantom Eye has had its testing program extended, and Aerovironment's Global Observer is in a similar phase of development.

Unfortunately, none of the winners from this NASA competition will actually get built in any form, and we can only hope that some of the talented students involved will go on to inform UAV design at some of the places that are working on these UAVs for real.

Via [ NASA ]

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