NASA and GA-ASI partner to bring command-and-control satellite link to Predator B drone, advance integration in NAS

EDWARDS, Calif., 3 Dec. 2012. Engineers at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. (GA-ASI) will develop and flight test new command-and-control satellite link capabilities on a Predator B unmanned aircraft system (UAS).

"With growing interest in using remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) for civil missions, we expect our work with NASA to open the door for increased confidence in operating these aircraft in the National Airspace System," explains Frank Pace, president of the Aircraft Systems Group, GA-ASI. "We are pleased to renew our commitment to NASA and to help expand the utility of Ikhana to Arctic missions.”

NASA and GA-ASI, working under a no-cost Space Act Agreement, will upgrade the command-and-control system of NASA's MQ-9 Predator B, named "Ikhana," to enable aircraft operations in more remote geographical regions. The upgraded aircraft will be used to conduct systems testing and evaluation flights.

"The system improvements enabled by this agreement expand the utility of the Ikhana MQ-9 for NASA science and the development of technology required for unmanned air systems to fly in the national airspace," says NASA Dryden Center Director David McBride. "Both are key national priorities that benefit from this government/industry cooperative effort."

"This new capability will allow Ikhana to support NASA science missions at higher latitudes where many important geophysical processes must be studied," says Bob Curry, NASA Dryden chief scientist. "In recent years, unmanned aircraft have demonstrated transformational opportunities for Earth science airborne research, particularly due to their very long endurance capability. They can also reduce the need to expose aircrew to remote and unforgiving environments."

NASA is using the aircraft in advanced flight research activities, including those paving the way for opening up the National Airspace System (NAS) to unmanned aircraft systems operation, in addition to its role in advancing science.

The next mission for NASA's Predator B aircraft, planned for the summer of 2013, is the Marginal Ice Zone Observations and Processes Experiment (MIZOPEX). NASA will provide the aircraft system and its associated engineering, technical, and operational staff to support Ikhana's mission to carry science instruments designed to investigate ice changes in the Arctic. James Maslanik of the University of Colorado at Boulder leads the MIZOPEX team of scientists; the science project manager is John Adler of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Ikhana was manufactured by GA-ASI and delivered to NASA in 2006.

Ikhana carried the NASA-developed Autonomous Modular Scanner for the multi-year Western States Fire Mission in 2007 and 2008 that investigated fires in the Western United States, especially California. Working closely with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the remotely piloted aircraft flew in the National Airspace System (NAS), its sensor delivering near-real-time wildfire information to incident commanders in the field.

Ikhana, capable of reaching altitudes above 40,000 feet and flying for more than 20 hours, underwent a major retrofit that included integrating redundant avionics, wingtip antennas, laser altimeters, centerline hard points, and greater electrical power generation capability.

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