CReSIS Team to Test UAV in Greenland


By Nick Mott
Summer 2011

Out in North Lawrence, past the Teepee, “purveyors of potables and edibles”, past the one-and-only “authentic” Jellystone Park, the Airport Motel, and seemingly endless Kansas fields, past even Don’s Diesel and a retro silver camper, sits a hidden-away hangar. On any given day, one can easily spot a Valkyrie motorcycle, a gleaming yellow corvette, an old hot rod. Here, however, it is engines and flight that matter. And it is here, in the KU Aerospace Engineering Hangar, that the Meridian UAV, or unpiloted aerial vehicle, received its final preparations before departing for its July 15 - August 15 test flights at the NEEM camp in Greenland.

Six years in the works, the UAV will make its first flight over the horizon during the mission. “We have not left line of sight before,” said Dr. Rick Hale, head of the UAV team. “Once the ground pilots can’t see it there’s no way to recover other than with the on-board intelligence systems – so whether you’re two kilometers or two hundred kilometers out, I guess you could argue you’re in the same safety mode.” The Meridian will fly within 25-50 kilometers of base camp at NEEM.

Although the Meridian has already undergone test flights in Antarctica and on a military base in Utah, CReSIS engineers have not yet had a chance to test the efficacy of the radar on the UAV. The Meridian radar, used as a depth-sounding radar, is a one-channel system which transmits on four antennas and receives on four antennas. “Hopefully we’ll send the aircraft out to its limits and get some good data from the radar,” said flight test engineer Ryan Lykins.

This trip will also serve as the first opportunity to test the operation of the UAV off of skis. “We’ve operated off grass, we’ve operated off pavement, we’ve operated off ice, but not off soft snow,” Hale said. The pilot, clutching a large RC joystick – an RC car-obsessed child’s dream – controls the plane as it takes off and lands. When it reaches altitude, the pilot turns the control over to autopilot. Flight test engineers at computer terminals fine tune the flight path with GPS Waypoint Navigation.


Photo courtesy of the NEEM Project.

What the trip really boils down to, Hale said, “is some aircraft system checks, some radar system checks, and then some integrated platform science checks.” At NEEM, Hale said that he hopes to get in “as many flights as humanly possible.” The final number of flights, though, ultimately depends on the weather.

Other sensors and aircraft at CReSIS offer high-altitude, long-range, and long-endurance capabilities, but lack some degree of maneuverability. “They take wide passes,” Hale said. “They’re good for interior ice and for wide spacing arrays.” Smaller, unmanned vehicles like the Meridian, though, are particularly suited for outlet glaciers. No pilot means less limitations and more fuel-efficiency. “We’re very maneuverable. Theoretically what we can do is the very fine surveys around the perimeters.”

“Right now we’ve been busy getting the aircraft ready,” Lykins said. “We went to Utah back in April to do flight tests, and since we’ve returned we’ve done a lot of rewiring the aircraft. Yesterday we did an engine test with the radar installed to test for any EMI (Electromagnetic Interference).” Before departure, team members have to focus on packing, and, due to the remote location of the NEEM camp, making sure all necessary items are ready to go.

Total flight time of UAV missions in previous years amounts to only a few total hours. “Ideally we’ll dwarf the total flight time of the aircraft in this mission,” Hale said.

During the next five years of development, the UAV team will work on fine-tuning the aircraft. Hale and Lykins said that engineers will be hard at work developing an increasingly autonomous radar system, and that they hope to cut the total crew number with every deployment.