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Engineers Harvest and Print Parts for New Breed of Aircraft

It’s more an engineer’s dream than nightmare – to rapidly prototype and redesign aircraft using 3-D printed parts. That’s just what a team of student interns and engineers at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, got to do: custom-build aircraft by repurposing surplus Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). Grafting fuselages side-by-side adds more motors, propellers and batteries to improve power and performance capacity.

By lengthening the wings, the team was able to improve aerodynamic efficiency and help extend the flight time of small, lightweight electric aircraft.

The prototype aircraft are constructed using components from Aerovironment RQ-14 Dragon Eye UAVs that NASA acquired from the United States Marine Corps via the General Services Administration’s San Francisco office. Unmodified, these small electric aircraft weigh 5.9 pounds, have a 3.75-foot wingspan and twin electric motors, and can carry a one-pound instrument payload for up to an hour.

NASA can use these Dragon Eyes to penetrate the dangerous airspace within the plume of the volcanoes because their electric motors do not ingest and are not affected by the contaminated air. The Dragon Eyes are proving to be an effective way to gather crucial data about volcanic ash and gas emissions.

The team – comprised of full-time students and summer interns from Stanford University, University of California (UC) Los Angeles, UC Santa Cruz, UC Davis, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and Northeastern University, as well as Ames engineers – modified Dragon Eyes by harvesting spare parts from other Dragon Eyes and reassembling them along with specially designed 3-D manufactured parts to create new aircraft the team dubbed “FrankenEye.”

The NASA team created the name FrankenEye to reference “Frankenstein.” The student teams participating in summer activities harvested parts from surplus aircraft and reanimated them using new 3-D printed parts with the goal of increasing payload capacity and endurance for use in Earth Science missions.

“We essentially created two entirely new machines,” said Kevin Reynolds, principal investigator of the FrankenEye project at Ames.

“We worked alongside a group of students to rapidly prototype, manufacture, test and demonstrate key capabilities in preparation for next year’s volcano plume-sampling field work.”

The FrankenEye project team used 3-D printers at Ames and Stanford to create prototypes and make conceptual models. The donated stock UAVs did not come with any blueprints so 3-D scanning technology was essential to design the interface to existing hardware, and create mechanical drawings.

After finalizing designs that featured longer and more slender wings and dual fuselages, the teams printed new parts including wing sections, nose cones, winglets, control surfaces, wing ribs and even propellers using the NASA Ames SpaceShop.

The 3-D printed wing sections were reinforced using carbon fiber tubing or aluminum rods to give them extra strength without adding significant weight.

“The more weight we carry in material is less weight we can carry in sensors or batteries,” said Reynolds.

“Dragon Eyes can fly approximately one hour using the existing lithium-ion battery. But with two fuselages – meaning two batteries – and a more efficient wing design that allows it to fly slower and conserve energy, our variants can fly up to three times as long using electric power.”

Within two months, the student interns also customized open source flight and navigation software to conduct nine test flights of two variants of modified aircraft named “Chimera” and “Alicanto” at Stanislaus County’s Crows Landing Facility in California.

The teams demonstrated the ability of their aircraft to take off autonomously, navigate through a series of waypoints, enter into a glide and land at a predetermined location without pilot intervention.

“This project is very exciting for us because it has demonstrated a new capability for quickly and inexpensively modifying existing aircraft to tailor them to specific mission goals,” said Matt Fladeland, Ames co-investigator on the FrankenEye and Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) validation projects.

“In this case the modified aircraft will be able to stay up longer while carrying more science payload over the volcano.”

The Costa Rican Airborne Research and Technology Application 2015 mission will be the latest in a series of deployments of small unmanned aircraft (UAVs), led by David Pieri, volcanologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and is supported by the NASA Earth Surface and Interior Focus Area, the ASTER Mission and a consortium of NASA centers, including Ames, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland and NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island, Virginia and the agency’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, as well as the University of Costa Rica (CICANUM) GasLab.

Flying as high as 12,500 feet above sea level, multiple small converted Dragon Eye UAVs, including the specialized and highly modified “FrankenEye” platform, will study the chemistry of the eruption plume emissions from Turrialba volcano, near San Jose, Costa Rica.

The goal of the activity is to improve satellite data research products, such as computer models of the concentration and distribution of volcanic gases, and transport-pathway models of volcanic plumes. Some volcanic plumes can reach miles above a summit vent, and drift hundreds to thousands of miles from an eruption site and can pose a severe public heath risk, as well as a potent threat to aircraft.

“The use of UAVs to carry out potentially hazardous sampling of volcanic gas emissions sharply reduces risk to volcano researchers,” said Pieri. “Such data also will be used to help mitigate risk for people living on or near active volcanoes and for passengers and crews flying over them.”

The project directly supports the current Terra and ASTER missions and NASA’s planned Hyperspectral Infrared Imager (HyspIRI) mission by improving satellite data-based observations of gases and aerosols associated with volcanic activity as well as volcanic emission transport models.

Turrialba was chosen because the continuously-erupting volcano has a relatively minimal updraft and wind shear with minimal ash content. In addition, commercial and private air traffic is very infrequent in the airspace around and over Turrialba volcano.

During the research flights in 2013, the team coordinated its data gathering with the ASTER instrument on NASA’s Terra spacecraft, allowing scientists to compare sulfur dioxide concentration measurements from the satellite with measurements taken from within the plume.

Through the fall, the FrankenEye project will continue to develop the aircrafts’ capabilities by focusing on sensor integration and a larger triple-fuselage design. This research effort seeks to show that FrankenEye is more than the sum of its parts and can be optimized to be more capable than its individual units.

Next spring, members of the FrankenEye team will witness their creations take flight over Turrialba volcano. Working alongside NASA Earth science researchers, they will fly the aircraft over and into the volcano’s sulfur dioxide plume.

Scientists believe computer models derived from this study will help safeguard the National and International Airspace System, improve global climate predictions, and mitigate environmental hazards (e.g., sulfur dioxide containing volcanic smog or “vog”) for people who live around volcanoes.

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Engineers Develop Smart Skins for Aircraft

Work is underway at BAE Systems to give aircraft human-like ‘skin’, enabling the detection of injury or damage and the ability to ‘feel’ the world around them.

Engineers at our Advanced Technology Centre are investigating a ‘smart skin’ concept which could be embedded with tens of thousands of micro-sensors. When applied to an aircraft, this will enable it to sense wind speed, temperature, physical strain and movement, far more accurately than current sensor technology allows.

The revolutionary ‘smart skin’ concept will enable aircraft to continually monitor their health, reporting back on potential problems before they become significant. This would reduce the need for regular check-ups on the ground and parts could be replaced in a timely manner, increasing the efficiency of aircraft maintenance, the availability of the plane and improving safety.

These tiny sensors or ‘motes’ can be as small as grains of rice and even as small as dust particles at less than 1mm squared. Collectively, the sensors would have their own power source and when paired with the appropriate software, be able to communicate in much the same way that human skin sends signals to the brain. The sensors are so small that we are exploring the possibility of retrofitting them to existing aircraft and even spraying them on like paint.

Leading the research and development is Senior Research Scientist Lydia Hyde whose ‘eureka’ moment came when she was doing her washing and observed that her tumble dryer uses a sensor to prevent it from overheating.

Lydia said: “Observing how a simple sensor can be used to stop a domestic appliance overheating, got me thinking about how this could be applied to my work and how we could replace bulky, expensive sensors with cheap, miniature, multi-functional ones. This in turn led to the idea that aircraft, or indeed cars and ships, could be covered by thousands of these motes creating a ‘smart skin’ that can sense the world around them and monitor their condition by detecting stress, heat or damage. The idea is to make platforms ‘feel’ using a skin of sensors in the same way humans or animals do.

“By combining the outputs of thousands of sensors with big data analysis, the technology has the potential to be a game-changer for the UK industry. In the future we could see more robust defence platforms that are capable of more complex missions whilst reducing the need for routine maintenance checks. There are also wider civilian applications for the concept which we are exploring.”

This research is part of a range of new systems we are investigating under a major programme exploring next-generation technology for air platforms.

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Corps of Engineers completes Army’s largest solar array installation

By on Thursday, January 24th, 2013

The largest solar power system in the U.S. Army is coming online at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., and officials gathered Jan. 16, to mark the occasion with a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

The Energy Savings Performance Contract, or ESPC, project, awarded and managed by the U.S. Army Engineering and Support Center, Huntsville, provides the sprawling desert base with a new 4.465 megawatt solar photovoltaic system, guarantees energy savings of 35,358M British thermal units per year, and reduces their energy consumption by 10 percent, said Wesley Malone, Huntsville Center project manager.

“To date this is the largest solar project in the Army,” said Michael Norton, Huntsville Center Energy Division chief. “Projects like this are important because the impact of rising energy prices on installations has resulted in an adverse increase of utility budgets spent on existing, often inefficient or outdated equipment.”

“ESPC projects provide energy efficient equipment resulting in a lower utility consumption,” Norton said. “Lower utility consumption reduces the DOD utility bills and assists in meeting federal mandates.”

ESPC brings in private party financing for energy conservation measures at Defense Department garrisons. An Energy Savings Contractor, ESCO, provides capital and expertise to make infrastructure improvements on government facilities to significantly reduce Army energy, in exchange for a portion of the generated savings. In the case of the White Sands solar power system, Siemens Government Technologies, Inc., of Arlington, Va. was selected as the ESCO.

Along with being the largest solar project, there’s another first in how the system at White Sands Missile Range was funded.

“We used an Energy Services Agreement for the photovoltaic equipment along with the ESPC concept which was a first for the Army,” said Will Irby, Huntsville Center ESPC Program Manager.

An ESA is an arrangement whereby a third party owns, operates and maintains the power generation system and provides electricity to the customer. This third-party ownership mechanism allowed for a significant tax grant from that reduced the project cost by $6.1M, Irby said.

Construction of the $16.5M system started in July and was completed in December.

Siemens was the solar system designer, integrator and is the operator. Their industry team included project construction by Texas Solar Power Company of Austin, Texas, with solar modules and tracking systems by Solaria Corporation of Fremont, Calif., and inverter manufacturer SatCon Technology Corporation of Boston. The project is owned, through the Energy Services Agreement, by Bostonia Group, also of Boston.

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