June 9, 2003 -- A milestone in the development of high-altitude, long-endurance, remotely operated aircraft occurred today with the successful flight of NASA's Altair. Altair is the first unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to feature triple-redundant flight systems and avionics for increased reliability.
The slender-wing aircraft lifted off the runway at General Atomics Aeronautical Systems' Inc. (GA-ASI) flight test facility at El Mirage, Calif. The purpose of the historic first flight was to evaluate the UAV's basic airworthiness and flight controls. After the successful test flight, Altair glided to a landing on the remote desert runway. The entire flight was conducted at low altitude within a relatively short range of the El Mirage flight test facility.
"This is what we've been waiting for," said Glenn Hamilton, Altair project manager at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center (DFRC), Edwards, Calif. "Now we can move forward with getting UAVs into the national airspace and conducting research," he said.
Thomas J. Cassidy, president and chief executive officer of San Diego-based GA-ASI, echoed Hamilton's comments. "Altair's first flight is a culmination of 10 years of experience in building reliable unmanned aircraft based on a common design philosophy," Cassidy said. "I am very proud of our design, manufacturing and flight-readiness teams for their dedication to a high performance level of excellence."
Built to performance specifications established by NASA's Earth Science Enterprise, Altair is an extended-wing version of the MQ-9 Predator B military UAV being developed under a partnership with GA-ASI. Altair is one of several UAVs designed for civil applications that have been developed or matured under the Environmental Research Aircraft and Sensor Technology (ERAST) program at DFRC.
After initial airworthiness test flights, Altair will serve as the avionics test aircraft for the production version of the MQ-9 before being transferred to NASA. At DFRC, Altair will first be used to evaluate various new control communications and collision-avoidance technologies that are critical to enabling UAVs to fly safely in national airspace.
Eventually NASA will use Altair for a variety of environmental science missions, such as volcanic observation, forest fire monitoring and atmospheric sampling. The UAV may be ideal for missions that are often too dangerous, difficult or lengthy for manned aircraft. UAVs are uniquely positioned to perform long missions that have repetitive routines.
Altair is expected to be the first UAV to meet Federal Aviation Administration requirements to operate from conventional airports, with piloted aircraft, in the national airspace. In addition to triple-redundant avionics, Altair is configured with a fault-tolerant, dual-architecture flight control system. The UAV will be equipped with an automated collision-avoidance system and an air traffic control voice relay. The relay allows air-traffic controllers to talk to ground-based Altair pilots through the aircraft.
Command and control of the Altair, as well as research data gathered by the UAV, will be transmitted through an "over the horizon" satellite link. The link will also allow scientists to receive research information as soon as Altair obtains it.
Altair has been designed to fly continuously for up to 32 hours. It can reach an altitude of approximately 52,000 feet and has a maximum range of about 4,200 miles. Altair can carry up to 750 pounds of sensors, radar, communications and imaging equipment in its forward fuselage. The Altair is 34 feet long, with a wingspan of 86 feet, 22 feet longer than Predator B. A 700 horsepower, rear-mounted turboprop engine powers Altair with a three-blade controllable-pitch propeller. NASA and GA-ASI are jointly funding development of the Altair and Predator B prototypes under the ERAST program. GA-ASI built Altair's predecessor, the Altus 2.
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