Las Cruces – New Mexico State University on Sept. 30 announced that its Physical Science Laboratory is partnering with the United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in developing and testing DARPA's Vulture unmanned aerial vehicle program.
The Vulture II Program, a joint venture between DARPA and Boeing, is centered around a new type of UAV with a 400-foot wingspan, weighing just 5,000 pounds. The objective of the Vulture program is to develop and demonstrate the technology to enable an airborne payload to remain on-station, uninterrupted for more than five years, performing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and communication missions. A mixture of solar cells and solid oxide fuel cells will power the vehicle. The system has potential in numerous roles: operation as a single platform, as a formation of multiple aircraft, or as a constellation providing infrastructure augmentation or recovery.
"This is really exciting," said retired Air Force Col. T. Bear Larson, who is NMSU's point of contact with DARPA. "We think this is a great opportunity for you guys to see some of our technology and maybe help us out in areas that you are strong in. We love the facilities out here. Everything about this is exciting to me. This technology intrigues me."
The program technology enables a re-taskable, persistent pseudo-satellite capability in an aircraft package. It combines the key benefits of an aircraft - flexibility and responsiveness, sensor resolution, reduced transmit/receive power and affordability - with the benefits of space assets, such as on-station persistence, no logistics tail, energy independence, fleet size and absence of an in-country footprint.
"It's quite an extraordinary accomplishment that's going to bring plenty of attention to New Mexico State University and possibly similar agreements in the future," NMSU President Barbara Couture said. "The initial contract is for about $2.5 million, and we expect, if this is successful, for more contracts to be down the road. This is a truly experimental aircraft. It's going to be a very exciting, unusual mission here right in our back yard in Las Cruces."
NMSU's PSL will be involved in addressing a variety of technology challenges for the massive UAV, including developing energy management and reliability technologies capable of allowing the aircraft to operate continuously for five years. The Vulture program will conduct full-scale technology maturation and demonstration activities to prove out critical technologies. Its intent is to advance technology and break the mindset that aircraft are defined by launch, recovery and maintenance cycles. Program success would allow a continuous operating airborne platform to remain on-station for multiple years and would greatly increase capabilities of the Department of Defense. In addition, NMSU/PSL will apply their airworthiness assessment, risk analysis and excellent safety record with unmanned aircraft in developing a safe operation to minimize impact to other airspace users.
NMSU is the only FAA Authorized Unmanned Aircraft System Flight Test Center in the United States, allowing for UAS operations in the National Airspace System or civilian airspace.
The NMSU/PSL portion of the project will continue through the conclusion of flight testing, which is expected to last into the third quarter of fiscal year 2014. DARPA determined that NMSU/PSL was the only entity capable of meeting the unique facilities, airspace and technical expertise required to oversee and conduct the flight testing of the Vulture while also meeting airspace, available frequency spectrum and takeoff and landing requirements.
"We're going to have a building ready in early 2013 and start assembling the vehicle out here," Larson said. "Our intent is to fly sorties of less than three hours to understand the airframe, and then start climbing up in altitude, with the culmination a 30-day flight test to demonstrate it can fly. Then we'll bring it back down and do a forensic analysis on all the components. We're really looking forward to this."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has given NMSU/PSL permission to build the airport for the Vulture testing on its land at the Jornada Experimental Range, northeast of Las Cruces. The vehicle will require a 3,000-foot diameter circle for level takeoffs. USDA also partners with NMSU/PSL for its UAS program. They use a small UAS for their remote sensing program for ecological applications, including access to airspace, image acquisition, terrain extraction, orthorectification, mosaicking, vegetation classification, geometric and classification accuracies and operational workflows.
Formed though a partnership between the Federal Aviation Administration and NMSU, the UAS Flight Test Center supports the integration of unmanned systems into the National Airspace System and operates the only FAA approved UAS FTC in the U.S. With more than 13 years of experience and expertise in UAS integration, operations and research and development, it collects data during unmanned flights in public, non-restricted airspace to assist the FAA in the development of standards and regulations for UAS operators.
The UAS FTC's agreement with the FAA allows it to operate flights in more than 15,000 square miles of airspace in southwestern New Mexico. Facilities include a 15,000-square-foot hangar at the Las Cruces International Airport dedicated exclusively to UAS operations, and office facilities and technical support are available on the NMSU campus.