UAV Development for Cryospheric Research Continues
After nine flights, three in Greenland and two in Antarctica, the Meridian Unmanned Air Vehicle (UAV) has demonstrated design aircraft performance for takeoff/landing and for maneuvering tight pattern flights within line of sight. Wheeled flights from grass, asphalt and ice runways and ski flights from snow and ice runways have all been demonstrated at 1500’ or less, suggesting a platform with significant potential for future remote operation from rugged terrain. The Meridian has been developed over the past six years as an increasingly autonomous flight vehicle for the Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets (CReSIS) at the University of Kansas. With a range of approximately 1000 miles, payload weight of 150 lbs, and an endurance of approximately 12 hours when equipped with eight wing mounted ice penetrating radar antennas, the UAV offers an exciting potential for augmenting crewed flights in the unforgiving polar regions.
The Aerospace Engineering team, lead by Associate Professor Rick Hale, first flew the Meridian in August 2009 at nearby Ft. Riley, and has since flown at Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah, Greenland and Antarctica.
In the summer of 2011 Greenland flights, the 1100-pound, 26-foot wingspan UAV flew 4 ice-penetrating radar antennas and returned its first radar images of central Greenland. While the chief goal is to acquire science data, the flights thus far have focused on establishing the airworthiness and reliability of the overall system. As such, the deployments have involved a team of 6, with duties ranging from piloting and aircraft maintenance to manning the two ground stations.
The 2011 Greenland campaign was conducted at Greenland’s NorthEemian Ice (NEEM) Drilling site. The KUAE team “lodged” in tents for the 5-week stay, with provisions for a single shower per week. Howver, they enjoyed the culinary talents of a bona fide French chef, each week culminating with a sit-down dinner at which all attending were obliged to wear a tie.
The Meridian, Ship 1, on takeoff slide—on skis--on the
The Meridian sits on the Ice Runway, attached
The Meridian takes off!
The most recent deployment was to McMurdo Station on Ross Island, in the middle of the Ross Ice Shelf, Antarctica. The highlight of this campaign was a 50-minute flight during which the Meridian flew for 30 minutes under autonomous control, eclipsing the total of autonomous flight time from previous flights of 18 minutes. During this flight, the aircraft flew a commanded “square” pattern and numerous “home” circular patterns at two different altitudes. The aircraft was also commanded over the Iridium satellite link, a capability essential for over-the horizon ice-sounding planned for the future.
The Meridian ground station, towed by snowmobile arrives on the Pegasus Ice Runway before flight.
Standing in the KU Pegasus Village Hangar: Ryan Lykins, graduate student and flight test engineer, Dr. Shah Keshmiri, Assistant Professor and flight dynamics and controls engineer, Dr. Mark Ewing, Associate Professor and avionics engineer, Emily Arnold, doctoral candidate and pilot observer, Austin Arnett, graduate student in Electrical Engineereing and member of the Radar Team. Kneeling is Aaron Kirby, Pegasus Village fire fighter and former member Wakrusa Drive Fire Station, Lawrence, KS.
Unfortunately, during landing, Meridian Ship 1, experienced a very hard landing and has been retired from service. With a small number of subsystem exceptions, the design of this “first unit” prototype vehicle will be replicated in the on-going fabrication of Ships 2 and 3.
The team preparation for Meridian operations actually starts with flight experiences with a “surrogate” UAV, a 30% scale model, balsa-wood YAK-50. This aircraft is flown with the same autopilot, autopilot ground station and health-monitoring ground station as the Meridian. It is piloted on takeoff and landing by a pilot operating a “sport-grade” 72 MHz pilot control unit, just like the Meridian is. So, the flight team is trained with multiple flights with the YAK. Fortunately, it’s a lot easier to find a place to fly the YAK than the Meridian, so while the Meridian has only flown 8 times, the Yak has flown nearly 75 sorties.
Jonathan Thom and David Royer put the “lid” on a YAK-50 “surrogate”. The arrow IDs the autopilot.
The goal of the Meridian is to provide a reliable platform for ice-sounding in the cryosphere, with the next deployments planned for Antarctica, December 2013-January 2014.
One of the great benefits of the Meridian project is the development of highly-sought-after graduates. Two of our recently-graduated flight test team members now work for General Atomics and the US Navy at their Patuxent River facility.
For more information about building the Meridian, Click Here