Monday, April 18, 2011

Miniature unmanned vehicle makes debut flight in NFL stadium

In a stadium usually set aside for NFL players and championships, the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis recently became a flight test center with a very unique flying object that didn’t look anything like a football.

Standing where the 50-yard line usually separates linebackers and offensive linemen, Boeing Research & Technology (BR&T) design engineer Jim Greenwood carefully raised a light gray small unmanned aircraft system (SUAS) over his head with its propeller spinning. Like a quarterback making a pass, he launched the five-pound airplane, named RM-1, short for “Rapid Manufacturing,” on its history-making flight about 60 feet above the dome’s field.

In reality, the Feb. 24 six-minute journey lifted off eight months earlier with a letter from the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.

“They called for a white paper on an unmanned vehicle that could have a defined payload mission and be designed, manufactured and built cost efficiently in less than four weeks,” said Mike Hayes, a BR&T design engineer. “We didn’t want to just deliver a piece of paper at the end of eight months so we told them upfront we were going to give them an airplane, and we were also going to try and fly that airplane.”

Ultimately, the Air Force Special Operations Command would like to use these ultra-portable, highly maneuverable and low cost unmanned aircraft for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions. Mobility and ease of use in the field are attributes the Air Force is seeking in these types of futuristic unmanned airborne systems.

For this project, the Boeing team used direct digital rapid manufacturing techniques, which made it possible to manufacture thermo-plastic parts without using any tools. The team transformed 3-D computer generated schematic drawings into lightweight carbon-composite aircraft parts.

“We would actually design a part during the day and build it at night,” said Hayes. “The parts all had to measure up to our rigid standards of integrity.”

The test aircraft is designed to hold a small camera that the team purchased at a local store. When broken down for shipping the platform can fit into an aluminum case the size of a small suitcase.

Mark DiPadua, a senior manufacturing engineer with the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory who witnessed the flight test, said this project is unique.

“This is going to provide the U.S. Air Force with the opportunity to design an SUAS around a specific payload and mission requirement, and we’ll be able to do it affordably and very quickly,” said DiPadua. “Situational awareness and information in the battlefield is the key component of mission success.”

Final approach

Choosing the St. Louis Edward Jones Dome as a test flight site was no accident. Rather than waiting months for availability and paying the potentially high cost of travel and lodging for the Boeing group at a government flight test facility, the BR&T team called officials at the St. Louis sports facility.

“We were really able to reduce a lot of the risks and costs by flying the aircraft in the private, enclosed dome,” said Peter Drain, a BR&T flight operations official. “We didn’t have to worry about Federal Aviation Administration air space limitations since our test essentially became a ground test in the enclosed stadium.”

Drain estimated using the St. Louis location also saved about $40,000 in travel expenses for the Boeing team and its Air Force partner since the dome is only a short drive from Boeing Defense, Space & Security headquarters where the RM-1 was designed and first assembled.

These tests were a lot more than just witnessing the solid performance and prowess of the airplane, DiPadua said, noting the Boeing team’s commitment and drive.

“Boeing has been a very professional partner,” said DiPadua following the flight test. “On time and on schedule, and in this case going beyond what we asked for in our initial request, the BR&T team brought the aircraft from paper to flight test in just four weeks.”

The swift and streamlined process “used in designing and building this airplane is going to be something that interests the Air Force to a great extent, and it may one day save the lives of countless warfighters on missions of peace around the world,” he added.

The final moments before landing were tense as the RM-1 banked over rows of stadium seating and lined up on its final approach to the cement floor of the dome. Boeing engineer Daniel Sundman cradled the remote controller in his hand and used the joystick to gently guide the aircraft’s battery-powered engine and bring the tiny vehicle closer to the ground. In a matter of minutes, the test was complete.

The unmanned aircraft, which has no landing gear, touched down on the smooth flooring and slid about 20 feet to a full stop. You could almost hear the crowd go wild.

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