Meet NASA's Futuristic Drone Research Lab

IEEE Spectrum gets a look at some of NASA's futuristic and occasionally bizarre unmanned aircraft

6 min read

Evan Ackerman is IEEE Spectrum’s robotics editor.

Meet NASA's Futuristic Drone Research Lab

Last week, NASA and AUVSI invited a carefully selected, elite group of media (which obviously included IEEE Spectrum) to take a tour of the Unmanned Aircraft Systems programs at NASA Dryden. The Dryden Flight Research Center (DFRC) is located approximately in the middle of nowhere, inside Edwards Air Force Base on a huge dry lake bed out in the Mojave desert. The remoteness of the area, plus the availability of over 100 square kilometers of empty flat lake bed to land on if necessary, makes Dryden a fantastic place to test out all kinds of futuristic and occasionally bizarre aircraft. And we got to meet a few of them.

Let's start with Ikhana, Dryden's Predator B UAV. You're probably familiar with the Predator drone, but the Predator B is significantly larger and more powerful. The military's version of this UAV is the MQ-9 Reaper, which is capable of carrying 15 times the payload at three times the speed of the Predator A, for up to 30 hours at a stretch. "Ikhana" is a Choctaw Native American word that means "intelligent, conscious, or aware," and appropriately enough, Dryden uses Ikhana primarily for remote sensing and monitoring. The drone is often used to map wildfires, for example.

This is what flying Ikhana is like, almost. The setup above is a simulator, and includes features that you won't find in an actual Predator control station, like a wide angle forward view. At Dryden, they experiment with things like this to see how valuable different cameras or data might be to remote pilots. In other words, they're trying to figure out what displays a drone pilot needs to effectively operate in national airspace.

When flying Ikhana around Dryden, pilots get to use a very low-latency radio connection for direct control using a joystick, just like in a video game. Away from Dryden, Ikhana is communicated with over a satellite connection, and flies autonomously via waypoint control. It's still possible to use a joystick to control the drone in an emergency, but the 1.5 second latency makes it "basically unflyable." Pilots practice it anyway, though, just in case there's an emergency and they need to land the drone by hand.

The next size up from Ikhana is one of Dryden's Global Hawks:

This particular aircraft was the very first Global Hawk ever made, and had its first flight back in 1998. It's quite a performer, though, able to cruise at 65,000 feet with a range of about 11,000 nautical miles. Even while based out of Dryden, it has no problem heading into the Atlantic or the Caribbean for extended weather monitoring, coming back home up to 30 hours later.

With a wingspan of 116 feet (that's longer than a basketball court), the Global Hawk has nearly the same wingspan as a Boeing 737, and it can haul 1,500 pounds of payload, including deployable sensors that it can drop into particularly bad weather. For the last month or so, NASA has been partnering with NOAA's National Hurricane Center to forecast hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico.

Unlike Ikhana, the Global Hawks don't have an option for human control. They're almost completely autonomous, requiring only that a human tells them where to go. This means that when a Global Hawk is flying, most of the time the team of humans in control has very little to do. While we were at Dryden, NASA's second Global Hawk was on its way back home from hurricane monitoring, so we were able to check out the frantic activity in the flight operations center:

Yup. Frantic activity. Some of the other photographers actually asked that these guys sit up and put their hands on their keyboards "to look like they're doing something." Generally, the Global Hawk just does its own thing from launch to landing, even down to parking itself back in front of the hangar and shutting its engine off. The humans are around to coordinate with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and in case something unexpected happens.



In addition to these big unmanned aerial systems, NASA Dryden also works on a number of "subscale technology demonstrators" in their model shop.

This little guy is called DROID (Dryden Remotely Operated Integrated Drone). It's been used as a testbed to develop something called the Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System, which is a system that autonomously prevents aircraft from crashing into things when there are visibility or navigation problems. With a detailed terrain model on-board and a regular GPS, DROID can avoid flying into terrain, taking over for a human pilot when necessary. A key feature of this system is that it only takes over when necessary, and the only time a pilot would notice it in action is if it's too late for a human to make an avoidance maneuver on their own.

Dryden has been testing this system in full-size F-16s as well, and it's effective enough that human test pilots get really, really nervous flying towards mountains and waiting for the autonomous avoidance system to kick in. Eventually, we should see this kind of technology on civilian aircraft as well.


This next project out of the Dryden model shop is the Towed Glider Air-Launch Concept, which the NASA scientists are testing as a way of reducing the cost of sending satellites into orbit.

If you're thinking to yourself, "hey, that just looks like two gliders stuck together," that's because it's just two gliders stuck together. Here it is behind a DROID tow plane:

The idea here is that you'd sling your rocket and satellite underneath this robotic glider, tow it up to altitude, and then fire the rocket off from there, after which the glider would autonomously fly itself back to base. It would be a lot like Virgin Galactic's White Knight 2, except it wouldn't be self powered.

Why is this towing approach better than just attaching the rocket and satellite on a carrier aircraft? It's actually fairly straightforward: with a towed glider, you have to worry much more about lift than about thrust. The glider can lift a rocket that's twice its own weight, and with a tow plane like a 777, you could (potentially) tow a glider and payload combination of a million pounds (!). For practical launch capability, however, this concept might make more sense to be used for small- to medium-sized payloads.

The guys at Dryden working on this project seem slightly confused as to why nobody is doing this yet, because it seems like a very good idea: the glider would be two-thirds the size and one-fifth the cost of comparable carrier aircraft. They hope to get funding to build a larger glider plane to test out the concept within the next year.



Dryden is also home to all kinds of other incredible relics. Most of them aren't robots, but for fans of aeronautical history, it's a treasure trove. While taking a shortcut from the Global Hawk hangar to the model shop, our guide pointed through a tiny window into a dark and dusty room, and inside we caught a glimpse of one of the original Lunar Landing Research Vehicles (LLRVs), pictured below, along with the M2-F1, the first manned lifting body aircraft. After making a minor fanboy spectacle of myself, I convinced them to open up the room and let me take a few pictures:

The LLRV was a big jet engine pointed at the ground, with a frame around it. The engine was powerful enough to lift the entire vehicle into the air and balance it there, simulating low gravity flight for training astronauts on lunar landings. Here's some video:


And here's the M2-F1; I took the picture while crammed into a bit of a corner, since it was a small room stuffed with some big aircraft:

The M2-F1 has no wings, but the shape of the body of the aircraft creates enough lift to keep it airborne. Initial testing in the 1960s began by towing this thing at 120 miles per hour across the lake bed behind a souped-up Pontiac, and towed flight tests followed. 


Here's one last aircraft (a personal favorite of mine), which is parked outside of Dryden:

I'm not tall enough to show you why the X-29 is so cool, so here's a picture from the top:

Those forward-swept wings and canards made the X-29 exceptionally agile, and (let's be honest here) freakin' sweet looking. And as we explained in an 1985 IEEE Spectrum article, the unconventional wings also made the plane "unflyable without the aid of computers." The X-29 is a good way to sort of summarize what Dryden is all about, when it comes down to it: turning crazy awesome ideas into actual flying aircraft.

We'll be following up on some of these projects (especially the unmanned stuff, of course) as they progress, and if you have any specific questions about anything we've covered, let us know in the comments and we'll do our best to get you some specific answers.

[ NASA Dryden ]

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