For the past 5-10 years, faculty and students at AFIT have been involved in ground-breaking research with small, tactical Unmanned Airborne Systems (UAS). This interdisciplinary research area has brought together researchers from the Systems, Aeronautical, and Electrical Engineering programs, typically teaming multiple students and faculty members to support System-of-System (SoS) level design, build and flight test. As part of the Systems Engineering focus, the teams have been asked to define user needs, conceptualize a solution using readily available hardware/software components, and demonstrate the military utility of the concept through flight test, all within a 12 month cycle time.
Most recent AFIT UAS research has focused on simplifying operator tasks and automating UAS functions to support single operator, multi-vehicle operations. AFIT students have flown as many as four UAS vehicles controlled by a single ground station in order to demonstrate cooperative reconnaissance and surveillance tasks. Additionally, research involving Human Systems Integration (HSI) for UAS has become a major thrust area in recent years. Students have developed a mission planning module that predicts when added benefit will be achieved by increasing numbers of vehicles given battery life, power consumption, and operator workload considerations; helping to avoid the situation where the operator is consumed with servicing vehicles as opposed to assessing the imagery that the vehicles are intended to provide.
AFIT maintains a "fleet" of 10-15 air vehicles to support the UAS research. Most vehicles are heavily modified RQ-11 Raven air vehicles that have been decommissioned by operational units. Students and technicians typically gut the Ravens and rebuild them with all new avionics, propulsion, and communication systems. The rebuilt vehicles, designated as AFIT OWLs, can then be modified further according to the individual research objectives. In addition to the OWLs, AFIT also operates several Sig Rascal vehicles, a commercially available system with a weight of 15-20 pounds and a wingspan of approximately nine feet. A custom design vehicle with a 12-foot wing span (the CONDOR) was also developed recently to demonstrate the potential for long loiter, near silent operations using a novel, student designed, hybrid electric propulsion system. The propulsion system is capable of transitioning from high power hybrid mode to gas only mode for cruise/ingress, and electric only mode for loiter operations.
The AFIT small UAS research program, and the associated academic programs in Systems, Aeronautical and Electrical Engineering, are providing directly relevant research for current tactical operations. In addition, the students performing the research gain valuable experience in small UAS operations, as well as rapid prototype design, demonstration, and flight test operations.
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