The unmanned aerial drone program allows for independent testing and prototyping

The new trailer provides more space for the UAS team to work on perfecting aircrafts for flight. Credit: Idaho National Laboratory
The new trailer provides more space for the UAS team to work on perfecting aircrafts for flight. Credit: Idaho National Laboratory

Since the Wright brothers experimented in the back of their bicycle store in Dayton, Ohio, flying has been mostly a mechanical effort. Even with all of the advanced technology available to Idaho National Laboratory's Unmanned Aerial Systems team for testing high-tech cameras, radios, and sensors, there is still a lot of gearhead inventiveness involved.

A $500,000 high-tech surveillance camera is kept aloft on an airplane powered by a Honda pressure washer's 1/2-horsepower gasoline motor. The plane's launch catapult is essentially an enlarged potato cannon. The organization works from a base that comprises a 1,000-foot paved runway, a control trailer, and a newly built 1,500-square-foot hangar in both Idaho Falls and at the INL Site.

INL's capability in testing unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, has been recognized by the Department of Energy complex (better known as drones). Over the past two decades, the lab has established capabilities for testing new platforms and evaluating technologies not just for the DOE, but also for the Department of Defense and private business. The INL Site has shown to be an excellent location for testing unmanned aerial vehicles against real-world circumstances such as severe weather, temperature fluctuations, and day/night operations, with 890 square miles of open high-altitude desert, a secure border, and a sophisticated wireless test bed.

The earliest UAV work at INL utilized infrared imaging and sensors to monitor cleanup operations and, in the event of wildfires, GPS data to help coordinate ground activities. When the runway was built in 2010, it permitted fixed-wing aircraft to land. INL has invested more than $4 million since then to educate staff, acquire planes, and create support facilities. INL supports over 40 different types of unmanned aircraft with transportable control stations that include power, communication, monitoring, and data gathering capabilities.

The INL fleet's flagship is a modified Arcturus T-20, a medium-range, completely composite aircraft. It is eight feet long and 18 feet broad from wingtip to wingtip, weighs 175 pounds when fully fuelled, and can fly for 10 to 12 hours.

They're workhorses, according to Matthew Balderree, who joined INL from the US Air Force in 2014. They work as mules. They can be whatever we want them to be.

Once a drone is in the air, one of the most difficult duties is not flying it from the command trailer, but rather keeping an eye on the computer to ensure that nothing goes wrong.

Balderree stated that, increasingly, our responsibility is to ensure that it is doing what has to be done rather than instructing it what to do.

A system equipped with artificial intelligence (AI) should be able to examine a complex of wind turbines or a solar farm and automatically downlink data to computers on the ground for processing if properly equipped and designed. It can help nuclear and other industrial plants run more efficiently by cutting inspection expenses. Similarly, AI might improve agricultural efficiency by examining sprinkler systems automatically or looking for insect damage to crops.

He believes that as the technology matures, drones will provide a very excellent return on investment.

INL provides innovative sensor, electronics, and communication package engineering and integration services. At its shop, the team can design, build, and integrate bespoke boards, chipsets, and electronics. The team works throughout nearly the entire radio frequency spectrum, which is managed and administered by INL's Wireless Test Bed and its frequency spectrum managers.

Furthermore, INL has received a number of Certificates of Waiver or Authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration. These certificates, which are issued to public operators for specified unmanned aerial operations, allow the lab to operate in the administration's permitted airspace, which stretches from Mud Lake northeast of the INL Site to Carey, ID in the southwest. This makes it easy to run a variety of tests in one location.

According to Balderree, we're probably one of the few sites with that caliber of assets.

One of the most rewarding aspects of Balderree's employment is the crew's ability to do autonomous fast prototyping of radios and sensors.

We don't have a dog in the battle, he remarked. We're attempting to determine whether these items will suit the demands of the field personnel. We want to know that a piece of equipment will always turn on and operate. Integration, testing, and validation are provided by an unbiased partner.

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