Note: This is the first in a series of stories about NASA's unmanned aerial system program.
The first thing NASA wants you to know is that they don't like The D Word. Minutes after I crossed through the security checkpoint at California's Edwards Air Force Base and embarked on a long drive past ancient dry lake beds to Dryden Flight Research Center, the agency made it very clear.
NASA's Kevin Rohrer was giving a talk before my media group, which was visiting the space agency's unmanned flying vehicle fleet. He told us that although we could use any words we like to discuss unmanned aircraft, "for our purposes today, it's unmanned aircraft systems please." About two hours later, we were checking out a Predator, of the same variety and make as those used by the CIA and military in foreign lands...only this one had no weapons, and, well, tracks forest fires instead of terrorists.
The NASA Ikhana is a retrofitted General Atomics Predator B which carries scientific recording data rather than weapons. It's used primarily for Earth science research and NASA test projects. Meanwhile, Predators are the public's very definition of "drones"—unmanned aircrafts firing missiles at targets on behalf of intelligence services and the military.
Once you get up close to one, the first thing that strikes you is how massive the Predator is. The Ikhana has a 66-foot wingspan and is 36 feet long. As the slideshow above illustrates, it's not exactly the size of your average Cessna.
NASA obtained the lone Predator from General Atomics in 2006 and uses it (there's only one Ikhana UAV) to fly research missions of up to 24 hours in length. These missions are ongoing—the last one wrapped up several months ago.
"We use these for aeronautics and Earth science research missions," NASA's Donald Johnson told us. "There are two imaging systems on here; a black-and-white infrared and a full-color camera. At night, I can see the runway through thermal energy. It's first mission was in 2007 and we used the Ikhana to conduct geolocation of forest fires. Within 10 minutes of us taking flight and collecting data, the U.S. Forest Service had superimposed our information on top of Google Earth overlays to help firefighters."
Although the UAV is mainly flown through a command center located at Edwards Air Force Base, it can also be taken on the road. Using a remote trailer with a satellite uplink that can be set up within 24 hours of arriving in a new area, the Ikhana can be used anywhere—allowing it to be sent for experiments far away from Edwards Air Force Base.
Ikhana, named after the Native American Choctaw word for intelligence (with the permission of the Choctaw nation), is used primarily by the agency's Suborbital Science Program. Next year, NASA expects to connect it with Inmarsat's new Arctic satellite system, which will allow research above 60 degrees of latitude. What does this mean? It means the space agency can track the Arctic with drones, and run climate change studies, track the growth of previously impossible Arctic shipping routes, and even follow marine mammals.
Mark Pestana, a retired NASA research pilot who flew the Ikhana for years, said that the reundancies and connections inside the UAVs make them safe to fly—and that he expects drones to eventually share America's airways with manned aircraft. "I have no problem with UAVs in our airspace because of the many collision and control protections. Personally, I'm more worried about distracted commercial pilots." Pestana added that education would be necessary for pilots, primarily because of psychological issues that sharing the skies with UAVs may cause.
The Ikhana also tests out next-generation drone and manned aircraft technology for NASA and their corporate and governmental partners. Last year, the UAV was used to test next-generation aircraft tracking technology to help NASA put in place the safety features which will let UAVs share the skies with conventional aircraft.
In addition, this particular Predator is being used to showcase technology that interests UPS and FedEx. Pestana and Johnson said that "In the fall, we're testing simulators (using Ikana data) about UAVs in civilian airways. In the future, there could be UAS systems landing at Los Angeles International Airport. UPS and FedEx are very interested in this because it could hugely cut costs for them over the long term."
Could this converted Predator drone help pave the way for UPS to use robots to send you your next Amazon deliveries? Well, stranger things have happened.
[Tony Landis / NASA]