Groundbreaking Unpiloted Airplane Designed with CReSIS Mission in Mind


By Ashley Thompson
Winter 2010


The Meridian Unpiloted Aerial Vehicle earned its proverbial wings this autumn, after passing a string of flight tests in Kansas and Utah. Next stop: McMurdo Station, Antarctica, where it will be equipped with a CReSIS radar and antennas, which its wings are custom-designed to handle, and undergo a third series of flight tests. By the end of January, the Meridian could be one of the largest unpiloted aircrafts ever to collect remote sensory data in Antarctica or Greenland.

It’s been five years since Rick Hale, University of Kansas aerospace engineering professor, and Bill Donovan, chief designer and PhD student in aerospace engineering, started down the road of designing and building a UAV nearly entirely in-house, with the help of undergraduates and graduates enrolled in one of the 17 classes that implemented UAV-related curriculum.

“It truly is the best university experiential learning possible, to see an aircraft go from concept to flight test” Hale said. “All of our students experienced a portion of that.”

Not that the decision to resist outsourcing in the process of crafting such a unique, 1,100-pound plane didn’t come without frequent frustration.

“What could go wrong, did go wrong,” said Andy Pritchard, the team’s Aircraft and Power (A&P) mechanic. However, the setbacks, including rebuilding the fuselage, difficulty in choosing an engine, finding a runway that would allow them to fly, and the daily difficulties that presented themselves, were well worth it for Donovan.

“It’s definitely been cool to go all the way through a project like this,” Donovan said. “Learning how to deal with the problems we encountered, learning how to manage a team, and just getting the practical experience of doing something very similar to what you’d do in industry has been a cool experience.”

Donovan’s team included 30 students and staff members, along with hundreds of undergraduates and graduate students working on the UAV each semester in classes. Four technology teams, as well as the CReSIS radar team, worked together to create an aircraft ideal for the harsh Polar environments.

“Largely we are in support of them. This platform exists to fulfill their (CReSIS’s) missions” Hale said.

The uniqueness of the CReSIS mission has been what’s molded this extremely adaptable, rugged UAV. Though it was built using federal aviation regulations (following FAR 23 standards) to size the aircraft, several technological features set the Meridian apart from most vehicles of its size class.

The Meridian is equipped with a fully digital fly-by wire system, and a fully automated digital control system for the engine. Electronic signals are all sent to actuators, not wires, which is what is typical for an aircraft of this size. It features four modes of communications with the vehicle – two radio modems to satellite communications, and two 900 megahertz transmitters. And key to survival in Antarctica, the UAV will be equipped with a de-icing system.

The wings are designed with eight hard points where radar antennas and sensors can be mounted. There are also eight soft points for small-scale sensors, and eight access panels in the wings making wiring for the radars easily accessible. The wings themselves are removable, and take only 10 minutes to remount, which allows for swift exchange and repair of radar arrays in the field.

“This is also important in Antarctica because we won’t have a hangar big enough to leave the wings on the airplane,” Donovan said.

Donovan also created the paint scheme with the idea of an Arctic or Antarctic mission in mind. The red and white scheme is designed to help the pilot (Lance Holly, University of Kansas Alum), stationed next to the runway, to see the UAV as easily as possible during its flight route. The rest of the team will remain at McMurdo and monitor the plane’s programmed flight path during the autonomous portion of the flight path (after take off and before landing). The aircraft is painted so that the pilot can easily determine the direction it’s going, and if it is slanting toward or away from the pilot.

An unpiloted aircraft is ideal for data collection in polar and other remote locales. The relative lightness of the UAV (aided by a lack of pilot weight or supplies) means that it requires 1/20th of the fuel that a manned vehicle would require – fuel that must of course be flown in itself. Additionally, it removes human risk due to poor visibility. The plane may fly as low as 500 meters above the ice, which blends all too easily with the gray horizon. Few pilots would be willing to engage in flying day in and day out in such a risky environment in that manner.

“It’s also a dull mission, and dull missions are when accidents occur,” Hale said.

The versatility of the UAV will lend itself to other future mission outside the CReSIS realm, the possibilities of which are “too numbered to count,” Hale said. But for the time being, the team is focused squarely on its Antarctic debut.

Eight professors and students leave in mid-December and will spend most of December and January running numerous semi-autonomous and autonomous test flights. After communications and radio systems are checked (proximity to the Poles can sometimes cause interference with the frequencies), eight CReSIS-created aerodynamic antennas will be mounted beneath the wings, and the data collection process will begin. Although collecting data is not the primary goal for this journey to Antarctica (that will begin more intensively next winter), Hale and his team are confident the UAV will deliver initial data this January.

“We’ve worked this whole time on how we can configure both the design of the vehicle and the radars to serve the science mission and to be more effective from the aerospace engineering standpoint. The influence works both directions,” Hale said.