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Using UAVs to Ramp up Development of Aerial Sensor Webs

In concept it is quite brilliant – using a small, cheap, practically 3D printable unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to greatly accelerate the development of aerial sensors, by allowing them to quickly and easily be fitted to the UAV, and launched into the air without a moment's hesitation. Something needs tweaking, the small plane is landed, the sensor detached, tweaked, reattached and the whole thing lifts again.

As many UAVs as required, no pilots required. As with an increasing number of drone aircraft, they fly themselves.

A GAUSS UAV ready to test a new radar sensor array

The project's name is the GTRI Airborne Unmanned Sensor System (GAUSS) . GTRI in this case, standing for the Georgia Tech Research Institute, making it extremely obvious who is behind this project. Given that GTRI have a large number of customers in avionics who use the sensor suites they develop, this approach makes a lot of sense. They can do the testing immediately, by launching the planes practically straight outside the lab where the sensor system prototypes were assembled, and even doing it the same day each prototype is completed.

This of course has the effect essentially, of shoving a rocket under the new sensor system development process, as they don't have to just simulate how their systems will work whilst developing them – they can test them in the real deal. Assemble, fly, and half an hour after you assembled it, you are making fine tuning adjustments based on real test flight data.

"Developing new sensor technologies that can be effectively employed from the air is a priority today given the rapidly increasing use of unmanned aircraft," said Michael Brinkmann, a GTRI principal research engineer who is leading the work. "Given suitable technology, small UAVs can perform complex, low-altitude missions effectively and at lower cost. The GAUSS system gives GTRI and its customers the ability to develop and test new airborne payloads in a rapid, cost effective way."

The aircraft navigates using a high precision global positioning system (GPS) combined with an inertial navigation system. These help guide the UAV, which can be programmed for autonomous flight or piloted manually from the ground. The airborne mission package also includes multi-terabyte onboard data recording and a stabilized gimbal that isolates the camera from aircraft movement.

Heavier sensor designs have several disadvantages, observed Mike Heiges, a principal research engineer who leads the GTRI team that is responsible for flying and maintaining the UAV platform. Larger sensors require larger unmanned aircraft to carry them, and those aircraft use bigger engines and must fly higher to avoid detection.

"Rather than have your design spiral upwards until you're using very large and expensive aircraft, smaller sensors allow the use of smaller aircraft," Heiges said. "A smaller UAV saves money and is logistically easier to support. But most important, it can gather information closer to the tactical level on the ground, where it's arguably most valuable."

The GTRI team has developed a modular design that allows the GAUSS platform to be reconfigured for a number of sensor types. Among the possibilities for evaluation are devices that utilize light detection and ranging (LIDAR) technology and chemical-biological sensing technology.

"The overall concept for the GAUSS program is that the airplane itself will be simply a conveyance, and we can mount on it whatever sensor/communication package is required," said Brinkmann.

Research engineers Warren Lee (left) and Mike Heiges adjust GAUSS, giving a sense of scale to the aircraft. Total wingspan is 13.6-feet.


Small UAV Supports Development of Lightweight Sensors

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