A team of students, faculty and researchers from the University of Kansas performed a successful flight test of the Meridian UAV on Friday, Aug. 28, at Fort Riley, Kan. The Meridian is an 1,100-pound unmanned aircraft with a 26-foot wingspan that was piloted by remote control.
Meridian’s mission will be to gather data on the ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland for the NSF Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets (CReSIS), headquartered at KU.
The innovative aircraft has been almost five years in the making under the direction of CReSIS’ Autonomous Platforms team leader Richard Hale, an associate professor of Aerospace Engineering. The aircraft, which was designed and built at KU, will help researchers to compile better data by allowing flight passes at slower speeds and lower altitudes above the icy terrain, flights that might be too dangerous for human pilots.
After a series of taxi tests and final checks, Meridian’s first flight test lasted about 8 minutes, including six runs through a predetermined pattern. The team’s design leader said the vehicle performed exactly as expected.
“Eight minutes might not seem like a long time, but for the first flight, we now have tons of data, which right now looks very encouraging for the aircraft performing as we expected it to,” said Bill Donovan, a doctoral student in aerospace engineering and lead designer.
“It was a little surreal. We all stood there, and it took off and performed exactly as I’d envisioned it a thousand times before. Then, when it came in and landed and I realized it was back safely, it was just a great feeling.”
Donovan said conditions for the test were ideal.
“We had perfect weather, a great sky, and the people at Fort Riley have been outstanding to work with,” Donovan said. “They have restricted airspace, and with a UAV, you can’t just fly anywhere, so they have been extremely helpful.”
Hale, the project leader, said the team of KU students would have preferred to find a pre-made vehicle, but in the end, building a vehicle from the ground up was the best option. In the field, the Meridian will carry specialized radar, also being developed at KU, on long-range missions in potentially inhospitable climate.
“There are so many benefits to being able to use an unmanned vehicle,” Hale said. “Aside from the danger (to a pilot), there also are considerations about fuel for a full-size plane, as well as the length of a possible mission.
“With a human pilot, you have to think about fatigue, food and he might need to take a nap. With this vehicle, we can work to eliminate these obstacles.”
The work CReSIS and KU researchers have been doing continues to move to the forefront in the discussion of global climate change, and the Meridian is another major step in that research, said Prasad Gogineni, the center’s director.
“UAVs equipped with the right sensor package have a great potential to collect much needed data over fast-flowing glaciers and rapidly changing areas of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets,” said Gogineni. CReSIS is a Science and Technology Center established by the National Science Foundation in 2005, with the mission of developing new technologies and computer models to measure and predict the response of sea level change to the mass balance of ice sheets in Polar Regions. “We at CReSIS are pleased with the first successful flight test in our effort to develop operational UAVs for polar research. I congratulate Dr. Hale, his colleagues, and the students involved in the project.”
This success marks the beginning of a new phase for the project, Hale said.
The Meridian UAV will be taken for more flight tests in Utah over the next few weeks, and the expectation is the aircraft will make test flights in Antarctica later this year.
“This is exciting, and I am thrilled that our students see the initial success of their efforts, but we are really just getting started in bringing this new capability to bear on the globally significant mission of CReSIS,” said Hale. “Now that we’ve made this advance, we can begin investigating the integrated vehicle sensor system, and we can begin to leverage successes in this flight toward new missions in remote sensing and transportation. I am even more excited for the future missions available to KU students.”