Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Let the 2011/2012 Field Season Begin

Nick, Shah, Andy, Ewing passing time on our
C-17 flight to the ice

McMurdo Station, Antartica. After 30 hours of travel, and a week of training and orientation, the 2011/2012 field season has begun. We have several new faces on the flight test team this go around, including my own. Out are the common denominators and foundation of the project, Dr. Rick Hale and Bill Donovan, and in are the fresh faces of Dr. Mark Ewing, my own, Austin Arnett (the radar guy) and Ryan Lykins. Ryan is a seasoned flight test team member, but this is his first time in Antarctica. Although Dr. Hale and Bill aren’t with us in person, their support back home has remained crucial to the success of the project. The other usual suspects on the team are Dr. Shah Keshmiri, A&P mechanic Andy Pritchard, pilot Nick Brown, and head radar guy Dr. Carl Leuschen.

The team left Lawrence on December 3rd and arrived in Christchurch on the 5th. There was a quick turn around and we landed on the ice on the 7th. Since half the team was on the Antarctic campaign two years ago, they did not have to go through the full training. This was beneficial to the team because they could get a head start on unpacking and making arrangements for the upcoming flights.
The arrival at Pegasus Field
Happy Camper site with our supplies
As for the rest of us, it’s been a week of training courses, lectures, and PowerPoint presentations. The highlight of the training was without a doubt Happy Camper and snowmobile training. Dr. Ewing, Austin, Ryan, and I were in a group of 18 people that were taken out to the vast white to learn snow camping and survival skills as part of the Happy Camper training. Our campsite consisted of eight tents, a kitchen, and snow trenches (for those who still had energy after the aforementioned was all set up). All of us except Dr. Ewing spent the night in their trench (or as I fondly refer to mine: the Snow Chateau). I’m sure Dr. Ewing would have spent the night in a trench as well, but he was busy with kitchen duties all night.

Ryan and Ewing building the kitchen
The next morning we arose to a DIY breakfast of oatmeal, granola bars, and hot drinks, and proceeded to clean up camp. The unfortunate part of digging up the snow is that you have to fill what you dig. Somehow we mustered the energy to fill our trenches and breakdown our tents to finish off the training with some scenarios such as a simulated plane crash in the vast white and a lost camper in Condition 1 weather.
Camp all set up, with the kitchen in the foreground

Taking a break from building the Snow Chateau
The next day was snow mobile training for Ryan, Dr. Ewing, and I (the others just have refreshers). I’ve never driven a snow mobile before so the thought that they were just going to hand one over to me was both intimidating and exciting at the same time. It’s an understatement to say I thoroughly enjoyed the training that included an obstacle course at the end. I have now anointed myself the unofficial snow mobile lead for our team. No one has questioned my position yet.

The team hiking up Ob Hill
As of yesterday, we have officially completed all of our training. Although it was enjoyable, I think everyone has been itching to dive into flight tests. In addition to completing training we have also finished our transition to night shift. Although the constant daylight has helped the transition, we also tried to stay active in the evenings to prevent early bedtimes. The evening after the SkiDoo training we hiked up Observation Hill just outside McMurdo. It was a good activity to keep us awake and built some camaraderie amongst the new team.
We're on the top of McMurdo!

Ryan and Nick set up the ground station
Final prep of the Yak before flight
Last night we got off our first flights of the season with the Yak-54.  We completed two 15 minute flights. The first was an autonomous flight where we reached roughly 12 waypoints before our flight time was up. The flight was a pseudo-over-the-horizon flight. I say “pseudo” because I’m told technically it wasn’t over the horizon, but it was so far away we couldn’t see it—so I’d count it. The purpose of the second flight was mostly to practice the communication between the pilot, the pilot’s assistant (NOT assistant to the pilot, that’s an Office joke for those of you who didn’t catch it), and the ground station team. Since I serve as the liaison between the pilot and the ground station team it’s imperative that we have a good flow of communication and understand each other.

Austin closing up the radar box

All in all it’s been a good start to the season, and hopefully we can ride the momentum of the successful Yak flights. We are currently prepping the Meridian for ground and taxi tests. If all goes well we’ll likely be in the air by the beginning of next week. The radar team checked their system last night and everything looks good on their end as well. The team is in good spirits and we’ve had really good weather (today was a sweltering 34oF) and visibility.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Flight Testing of the Meridian UAS in Antarctica is Successful!

McMurdo Station, Antarctica. We have begun flight testing of the Meridian UAS in Antarctica with very good results. We completed the first flight of the Meridian at around 11:00 pm December 31, 2009, which was a fantastic way to celebrate the New Year. We performed takeoff and three circuits around the pattern in manual mode to trim the aircraft prior to turning the autopilot on. We then turned the autopilot on and entered a 450m radius orbit at 120 kts. The aircraft tracked airspeed and ground track very well. The altitude varied somewhat, but that is to be expected considering the small size of the circle. Essentially, this verifies that the controller is stable and that the aircraft can make the 1km grid spacing required for the mapping missions. Further analysis of the flight data will investigate the performance of the controller and may lead to possible improvements.

In addition to verifying the autopilot system functionality, a drag cleanup was implemented on the aircraft after flights in Dugway showed very high power requirements. The average throttle setting in Dugway at 110 kts was approximately 85%. The average throttle setting in Antarctica for 120 kts was around 45-50%. There are some other variables involved, but this essentially shows a substantial decrease in drag from the Dugway configuration.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Yak-54 UAS Flights 3, 4, and 5 Complete

McMurdo Station, Antarctica. We completed the third, fourth, and fifth flights of our Yak-54 unmanned aircraft system on Thursday, December 17 and Friday, December 18. The third flight consisted of an orbiting waypoint, where the aircraft circles around a fixed point, followed by a box-shaped mission. All of the waypoints in the first flight were on the opposite side of the runway from the ground station, essentially simulating a standard right closed traffic pattern. The fourth and fifth missions were also-box shaped, but were centered at the ground station so that the aircraft was flying around the ground crew. This allowed us to increase the size of the pattern while keeping the aircraft close to the ground station. This is important for the first Meridian flights as we like to ensure that we have the ability to take manual control at any point in the flight. This isn't something that we will need past the second or third flight of the Meridian, but is a nice backup in the event that the autopilot has any problems.

We have concluded the majority of the Yak-54 flights and moved on to getting the Meridian ready. We pulled the aircraft out of the hangar on Sunday, December 20 to balance the propeller. This consists of performing several engine run-ups while adding small weights to the spinner. While we had the engine running we also performed some avionics systems tests and everything is looking good. Once the propeller was balanced, we performed a weight and balance then had to push the aircraft back in the hangar because the weather was too bad to fly. We had been getting lucky with excellent weather until now. On Monday the Meridian was bathed in Antarctic snow (shown left) as we performed our final avionics checks.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

First Flight of the Yak-54 UAS Successful!

McMurdo Station, Antarctica. The first flight of the Yak-54 unmanned aircraft system (UAS) was completed Monday December 13, 2009.  We performed two flights with the Yak Monday night: One mostly manual flight to get our pilots comfortable with the field, and one autonomous flight to verify autopilot performance. Note: We are operating at night down here to deconflict our UAS with other air traffic. This isn't a problem considering the constant daylight, however it does require our team to have a somewhat irregular schedule.

On Tuesday, December 14 Dave Royer and Jon Tom had to report to Snowcraft I ("Happy Camper") training. This is thankfully the last bit of training the team must complete. While this meant that we were unable to fly on Tuesday and Wednesday, it also gave us a few days to review flight data and start planning the next flights. So far everything looks great in the data. The aircraft was maintaining altitude, airspeed, and ground track very well. The next set of flights will expand the mission area and flight time as we begin to simulate Meridian flights. Just as a reminder the primary purpose of the Yak-54 flights in Antarctica is to serve as a low-cost, easy-to-operate method of simulating Meridian missions.

In addition to looking at flight data, we continued to work on getting the Meridian ready for flight this week. Andy Pritchard reinstalled the propeller and spinner and began performing maintenance checks on the engine. We pulled the Meridian out of the hangar to install wings to ensure there are not any cold-weather related problems with our processes. Everything went well and the vehicle is close to being ready for ground testing. While it was outside, the Meridian attracted the attention of a few people working at the airfield. It's nice to see so much local interest in our project.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Training, Training, and More Training

McMurdo, Antarctica. Our training has continued this week to include four of our team members going through the Snowcraft I training (AKA "Happy Camper"), two guys getting trained on track vehicles, and everyone getting a chance to cruise around on Ski Doos. The Happy Camper course teaches basic techniques for cold weather survival. Things like how to identify and treat hypothermia and frostbite, which may come in handy once back in the states considering the temperature in Kansas is currently in the single digits. In fact, it's actually colder in Kansas than it is in Antarctica right now, but that won't stop us from telling stories of how our rugged team managed to endure the harshest environment imaginable.

Well, the conditions here may not be as harsh as we want people at home to think, but that doesn't mean that Antarctica hasn't taken it's toll. One person on our team, whom shall remain nameless, was so exhausted the day he got back from Happy Camper that he went to bed right after dinner. He woke up at 8:45 and immediately popped out of bed as we had training at 9:00am and he didn't want to be late.  He got dressed and went to the Science Support Center only to find that it was actually 9:00 pm and he had only slept for a few hours. This whole constant daylight thing is trickier than it looks.

After the guys returned from Happy Camper (and they figured out what time it was) we went to the Science Support Center for snowmobile training. We got a fairly thorough breakdown of general vehicle maintenance and then we got to have some fun. We went out on to the snow and followed our instructor, Brough (One of the cooler names I've ever heard) around the training course. We climbed over some bumps, weaved through some flags, and felt cooler than we probably looked. Nonetheless, it was a good time.

Our hangar became ready for us to start moving in on Saturday December 12. We took the Yak-54 out to start getting it ready for flight as Saturday was also the first available flight day for us. We had a window from 9:00pm to midnight. We left camp in a Pisten Bully a little past 7:00pm. Eleven miles and two hours later we were at Pegasus field. The trip took much longer than expected so we decided not to fly, but we still got some very useful time in on the runway. We calibrated some sensors, tuned the engine, and performed further ground testing of the systems. It is said that everything works differently, if at all, in Antarctica so we are taking time to make sure that all of our sensors are working properly.

On Sunday December 13 we made the trip back out to Pegasus (this time in a shuttle). We unpacked the Meridian shipping container and started getting the hangar set up. We are very happy with the hangar thus far. There's plenty of workspace for computers, ample room to work on the Meridian, heat, and there should be phone and internet lines early this week. Having a hangar like this right next to our runway will definitely make operations easier and more efficient than they have been in the past for us. It seems like it's been a long time since we left home, but we are finally getting close to being up and running.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Antarctica or Bust

McMurdo Station, Antarctica. We arrived in McMurdo Friday Dec 4, 2009 at around 2:00pm local time. I say around 2:00pm because after 30 hours of travel and going through 19 timezones, I barely know what day it is let alone the time. I might add that the 30 hours was only to get to Christchurch, New Zealand. It was another 5 hours on a C-17 to get to McMurdo. I'm definitely not complaining though, because we managed to make the trip in one attempt. While on the shuttle from the airport we heard people talk about boomeranging three times before finally making to the ice so we all feel pretty lucky.
Everything went smoothly the morning of our flight. No one on our team missed the shuttle or anything of the sort, and everyone seemed to have good luck with the Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) gear. Although, there were the expected complaints about the Bunny Boots (I actually think they're pretty comfortable).
We went through our first briefing the day we arrived and have several more in the first week. Dr. Hale and I are the only two of our team that have been here before so we're aware that things will move a little slowly in the first few days, which is good considering the jet lag we're all still trying to shake.

We just got access to our shipping container so we can look inside and see how things fared in the journey. From first glances, everything appears to be fine. We pulled out our Yak-54 UAS to get it ready for flight as we will perform flights with the Yak prior to getting the Meridian out. Both systems use the wePilot autopilot, so the Yak will help us make sure we're not going to have any geographically related problems with any of the sensors. We also pulled the Meridian avionics box out for inspection. Everything looks good inside and it has been approved for flight.
At this time we're just waiting to get everyone through the training process, which should take up most of this week. Hopefully we will be able to get a Yak-54 flight off by the weekend.

Friday, December 4, 2009


Lawrence, KS. The purpose of this blog is to document the Meridian Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) testing that will be performed this Season (December 2009 - January 2010) in Antarctica. The Meridian UAS (pictured right) is an 1,100 lbs, 26 ft wingspan unmanned aircraft designed to support remote sensing science missions in the Cryosphere. The Meridian was developed at the University of Kansas under the Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets (CReSIS), an NSF funded science and technology center.

The Meridian has been designed to carry multiple payloads to include radar systems, magnetometers, gravimeters, cameras, etc., but the primary payload for this season will be an ice penetrating radar developed at the University of Kansas. The purpose of this seasons trip are twofold: First, we will be testing the aircraft system in the field. The Meridian is a newly
designed UAS and, therefore, must undergo systematic field testing to prove out its capabilities. The second part of this trip is to verify radar system functionality on the UAS. Again, the goal of this testing is to prove the capabilities of the system such that it can be deployed operationally in the coming seasons in both Greenland and Antarctica.

The flight test team (Shown to the right) consists of, from left to right, Andy Pritchard, Nick
Brown, Dr. Shah Keshmiri, Dr. Rick Hale, Lance Holly, Bill Donovan, Jon Tom, and Dave Royer.