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AFIT focusing research on small Unmanned Aerial Systems, Specialization gives students real-world, relevant skills.
Posted Thursday, September 12, 2013


By Estella Holmes 88 Air Base Wing Public Affairs

The first group of students going through the Air Force Institute of Technology's (AFIT) Unmanned Aerial Systems specialization recently completed their flight-test demonstration at Camp Atterbury, Ind., Aug. 12 to 14.

Two student groups successfully demonstrated the ability to autonomously maintain surveillance on a ground target, deliver small payloads to two adjacent locations and support a 45-minute mission. Low operator workload was emphasized, motivating the students to demonstrate automatic takeoff and landing procedures as well as surveillance and payload delivery tasks.

The coursework took students through the conceptualize/design/build/ flight test process, providing hands-on experience with hardware similar to that being used in deployed systems. As part of their coursework, students conducted a series of design reviews for their concept responding to a set of "user" requirements. After successful completion of their critical design review, the student groups were issued an aircraft kit to modify according to their design.

The students also conducted a series of laboratory assignments covering such topics as communication links, hardware-in-the-loop, or autopilot gain tuning and mission planning and optical sensor characterization.

"The students are required to pass a Test Readiness/Safety Review Board before they are allowed to fly, and they have to convince this independent review board that they have identified potential hazards and implemented mitigation actions wherever possible," said Col. Brian Tom, the recently appointed AFIT flight test safety officer.

Flight-test discipline and safety considerations are a big part of the UAS coursework and research at AFIT. Of note, the Camp Atterbury tests included an element of realism, as mortar fire from Army exercises flew overhead during a portion of the flight testing.

There have been several new developments associated with the unmanned work at AFIT. In January, the institute began offering a three-course specialization in small UAS development for warfighter mission needs. The emergence of high-end hobbyist equipment for radio-control modeling, as well as a proliferation of networking, communication and video surveillance equipment, provides a ready supply that can be integrated to meet urgent warfighter needs.

"Because most of our students and many of our faculty are active-duty or have or have previously served in the military, the reason for what we are doing is never far from our minds," said Dr. Dave Jacques, System Engineering program chairman and Small UAS course director.

As part of the emphasis on the urgency of the response, the students must complete the entire process from the statement of need through the flight-test demonstration and evaluation, in less than eight months.

AFIT has been involved in pioneering research with small, tactical Unmanned Aerial Systems for the past 10 years. Recent research has focused on simplifying operator tasks and automating UAS functions to support single -operator, multi-vehicle operations.

In past years, 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.

A new project this year assessed the military utility and effectiveness of controlling UAS vehicles through First Person Video, where the ground-based operator is "placed" in the cockpit via live, two-way communication with a video system controlled by head-motion tracking virtual-reality goggles. This system allows the operator to control the plane, either manually or using autopilot way points, as well as point the camera to acquire and track a target.

The AFIT small UAS research program and the associated academic programs 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.

- Dr. David Jacques contributed to this story

2nd Lt. Riley Livermore launches the Air Force Institute of Technology's Super Sky Surfer Unmanned Aerial System while the safety pilot, Rick Patton, monitors the flight test.

Preparing for a flight test of the Unmanned Aerial System with First Person Video goggles are Maj. Andrew Conner (left) and Maj. Brandon Miller.