NASA Dryden's UAV "Ikhana" in flight at Edwards
Photo: Tony Landis
3/29/2007 - The inventory of research aircraft at NASA's Dryden
Flight Research Center has grown by one with the acquisition
of a Predator B unmanned aircraft system adapted for civilian
missions. Built by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc.
(GA-ASI) of San Diego, NASA took possession of the new aircraft
last November, and it is due to arrive at the NASA center at
Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., this spring.
The aircraft has been named "Ikhana" (ee-kah-nah),
a Native American word from the Choctaw Nation meaning intelligent,
conscious or aware.
"The name perfectly matches the goals we have for the
aircraft," said Brent Cobleigh, NASA Dryden's project manager
for Ikhana. "They include collecting data that allow scientists
to better understand and model our environmental conditions
and climate, increasing the intelligence of unmanned aircraft
to perform advanced missions, and demonstrating technologies
that enable new manned and unmanned aircraft capabilities."
The aircraft, designed for long-endurance and high-altitude
flight, will be used for multiple roles. NASA's Suborbital Science
Program within the Science Mission Directorate will be Ikhana's
primary customer, using the vehicle for Earth science studies.
A variety of atmospheric and remote sensing instruments, including
duplicates of those sensors on orbiting satellites, can be installed
to collect data for up to 30 hours. The Suborbital Science Program
uses manned and unmanned aircraft to collect data within the
Earth's atmosphere, complimenting measurements of the same phenomenon
taken from space and those taken on the Earth's surface.
"The need to collect data over day-night time cycles and
over long distances in remote areas drives the need for a long-duration
unmanned aircraft," said Cobleigh. "Piloted aircraft
are limited by crew duty requirements that generally restrict
science flights to 10 hours or less. Unmanned aircraft are also
more suitable for remote missions spanning open oceans or the
polar regions where the lack of nearby emergency landing locations
increases the risk for piloted missions."
NASA's Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate will also use
the aircraft for advanced aircraft systems research and technology
development. Initial experiments will look into the use of fiber
optics for wing shape sensing and control and structural loads
NASA and the United States Forest Service are working closely
with the Federal Aviation Administration to receive a Certificate
of Authorization (COA) to operate Ikhana with a multi-spectral
wildfire sensor over remote areas of the western United States
during the summer of 2007.
"The FAA has been very cooperative in helping to define
ways to achieve our mission objectives while protecting the
safety of the national airspace system," said Greg Buoni,
lead operations engineer for Ikhana. "Because unmanned
aircraft currently have limited ability to see and avoid other
aircraft and, in some cases, have lower reliability than a manned
aircraft, unmanned flights within the national airspace require
a COA and are subject to significant restrictions in their operation."
Initial flights of Ikhana are originating from GA-ASI's Gray
Butte facility, east of Palmdale, Calif. NASA pilots and maintenance
personnel are training to support flights of the aircraft from
Dryden in the spring.
NASA has also purchased a ground control station and satellite
communication system. The ground control station is in a mobile
trailer and, in addition to the pilot's "cockpit,"
includes computer workstations for scientists and engineers.
All the aircraft systems are mobile, making Ikhana ideal for
The aircraft has a wingspan of 66 feet and is 36 feet long.
More than 400 pounds of sensors can be carried internally and
over 2,000 pounds in external wing pods. Ikhana is powered by
a Honeywell TPE 331-10T turbine engine and is capable of reaching
altitudes well above 40,000 feet. This aircraft is the first
production Predator B equipped with an upgraded digital electronic
engine controller (DEEC) developed by Honeywell and GA-ASI that
will make Ikhana five to 10 percent more fuel efficient.
Source: NASA Dryden Press Release