Wednesday, July 8, 2015

2015-07-07: Autonomy Incubator Celebrates First-Ever Untethered Outdoor Flight

The Autonomy Incubator (AI) and newly-formed UAV Operations group saw its inaugural untethered UAV take to the skies today on the back fields of the NASA Langley Research Center, an accomplishment which represents over a year's effort from dedicated LaRC employees to acquire a Certificate of Authorization (COA) from the FAA.  As the attention surrounding last week's tethered flight test revealed, the Center's proximity to Langley Air Force Base added complexity to the already stringent regulations on unmanned vehicles. This monumental flight, with a Hex Flyer under the control of AI pilot Zak Johns, was the first of many outdoor tests and demonstrations the AI plans to perform with the center's new authorization to fly on site. 

The current COA gives us the ability to fly in the area colloquially referred to as the "back 40," the empty land surrounding the Gantry where the sled for testing the Space Shuttle's tires used to be.  While today's flight took place in only one of the eight sections of the back 40, the AI will eventually be able to use the entire range area for testing as part of a center project called CERTAIN: City Environment for Range Testing of Autonomous Integrated Navigation.

A fourteen-pound Hex Flyer performing maneuvers in close proximity to a large crowd of admirers requires continued diligence from LaRC safety, so all spectators watched from a cordoned-off area about 50 yards away from the launch site and received a thorough briefing from Tommy Jordan before the flight.

While the safety briefing was going on, AI member John Foggia radioed in to Langley Air Force Base's tower to let them know that we were preparing to take off, exercising the newly developed protocol with LAFB for flying unmanned vehicles on site at LaRC.

The Hex Flyer made two six-minute flights, using a predictable circular pattern as it ascended to the top of its range and descended again.  While technically, the outdoor tests might not have had the white-knuckle factor of our more theatrical demos—no one flung themselves into the path of an oncoming UAV, for example— the implications of these two simple exercises are thrilling for the AI. Armed with our new COA at NASA Langley, our ability to test and eventuate the AI capabilities in a realistic outdoor environment will keep us at the forefront of autonomous flight research and will empower our researchers to realize the real-world applications of their work. Today's success created infinite opportunities for success tomorrow.

AI Head Danette Allen explains the equipment to Meghan, Gil, and Bilal

Curious about the flight? Watch this video of the most interesting parts, artfully edited together by the same radiant, hardworking social media intern who recorded it. She even let a grasshopper climb halfway up her leg while she was filming because she was so committed to getting this footage. How could you pass up something so great that it was worth being swarmed by grasshoppers?


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