Tuesday, January 24, 2017

2017-01-24: Up Close With The Hive

The engineers in the Ai have to wait out coastal Virginia's rainy spell to begin flight training and the suspense is KILLING us, so in the meantime, let's talk about why the Hive is the coolest thing to enter Building 1222 since our social media intern Spider Bot's debut last summer.

First and foremost, the Hive is a research vehicle– which means that efficiency and reliability are paramount. No one cares how fast our UAV will go if it can't get through a full day of flight tests. So, its creator Zak built in triple-redundant GPS and ESC systems to make sure that no matter what happens, the Hive stays in the air. It even powers up prop-by-prop instead of all at once to get maximum mileage out of every battery charge.

Triple the GPS sensors for triple the fun.
The co-ax props aren't just a design element; they're engineered to produce enough lift to carry a medium-sized dog (in theory!). When the vehicle itself is already six feet wide, that's an unprecedented amount of power for an Ai research vehicle. 

"[The Hive] can carry a sixty-five pound payload with ease," said Zak. "It's got a lot of thrust."

Stacking the props also has aesthetic advantages for when multiple
vehicles take to the sky. According to Zak, "You don't wanna have
four octos out there with eight arms each. It looks ridiculous."
Despite its might, the Hive was designed to be portable. Once it folds up into a 20x20 inch square (sans battery pack), it becomes compact enough to fit in a military-issue Pelican backpack. Expanding and shrinking the vehicle is easy– just remove the screws, fold the arms into position, and replace the screws.

Zak begins to unpack The Hive for its maiden voyage.

An arm in storage position.
So: it's packable, it's efficient, it's enormous. All good qualities in an Ai robot. But the most innovative thing about the Hive, the reason we're so excited to include it in our atmospheric science mission, is what it can do once we get it three identical friends.

This is a twenty percent scale model of the module that will link four Hives together into what we're calling a "Mothership." We can use this to link them together on the ground and take them off together as a single mega-UAV, but with a flick of a switch, this piece will un-link the vehicles mid-flight, deploy a controllable parachute, and drift back to the ground. 

Zak demonstrates the parachute release.
"The NASA meatball alone is two and a half feet in diameter [on the full-size product], so that gives you some size perspective," Zak said. "And look at all the space inside. There's room for all kinds of sensors in there." The inside of the central element is so roomy that he sees potential for making the piece fully autonomous, capable of deploying its own parachute and steering itself to Earth. 

Overall, what makes the Hive such a sensational development for our lab is the limits it removes from our research. Even beyond atmospheric science, The Hive has the power and versatility to do anything we need it to do, indoors or outside. 

"This really is a multi-use platform," Zak said. "You can use it in any of the projects here at Langley."

Friday, January 20, 2017

2017-01-20: Autonomy Incubator Receives its First "Hive" UAV

Four six-foot wide "Hive" UAVs link together to make a "mother-center-ship" in the sky, cruising high over the water collecting ozone data and scattering hundreds of tiny CICADA gliders from a payload bay suspended underneath. On their way down, the gliders collect data and transmit it to a central computer on land before splashing down. A scene from the next Star Wars movie? Or maybe Twister? No– it's the sleek new iteration of the Ai's atmospheric science mission, and it's right in NASA Langley's backyard.

Zak Johns, The Hive's designer, and Ai Head, Dr. Danette Allen, celebrate with one of the UAVs.

The Ai has is teaming with LaRC's Science Directorate (SD) to be the first to collect in-situ atmospheric data at the transition between land and water. The Ozone Water-Land Environmental Transition Study (OWLETS) project will collect data at multiple locations across Hampton Roads, including the LaRC COA area near the Gantry (aka, the Back 40) and is planned for this summer.

Danette explains the CICADA glider to Tim Berkoff
Tim Berkoff and Guillaume Gronoff take photos of the Hive UAV
Zak Johns assembles the Hive UAV in the Ai