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  • Big Ranges, Large Airspace Beckons UAVs
    Posted by David A. Fulghum 1:59 PM on Sep 24, 2009

    Customers can come to the U.S. Navy’s China Lake ranges with a sensor payload, a networking device or a weapon and test it. They can even use the Weapon Division’s fleet of UAVs.

    The UAV facility at the Naval Air Warfare Center is easy to spot. It’s next to a B-29 that was rescued from one of the ranges and a number of other antique aircraft waiting for their place in a museum.

    “The unmanned systems activity was set up as the Weapons Division’s response to the huge growth in UASs,” says Elijah Soto, deputy head of the UAS office. “The intent is to provide support to programs of record. We want to reach across the weapons division and between our land and sea ranges to provide a unified [test and development] response to unmanned systems. We don’t want small [redundant and underfunded] UAV projects to pop up everywhere. Another goal is to minimize infrastructure and the cost to fly unmanned systems. They are not cheap to fly because you have to collect and analyze a great deal of data.”

    In addition, officials are working on obtaining clearance to fly UAVs through the Tomahawk flight corridor that connects China Lake to NAS Point Mugu on the Pacific coast.  However, it will require a UAV command system that allows control to be handed off.

    “We’ve been working with the [U.S. Air Force’s] UAV center of excellence at Creech for the last three years to [build] a relationship because there is virtually no where else in the U.S. with [China Lake’s] land and airspace that’s under unequivocal [military] control,” says Dave Janiec, head of the Weapons and Energetics development dept.

    However, UAV operations are still not second nature to every agency.

    “Everybody wants to be in the UAV business, but the mechanics of dealing with national air space is really hard,” says Mike Biddlingmeier, head of research and engineering business relations for the Weapons Div. “Some of the most mature programs, like those [Predator A and B] handled by the Air Force, have a 10-year relationship with us. So we need to foster a culture change [to take full advantage of UAVs.] [In the past, it has taken] months, sometimes years to get an FAA approval for UAV flights in national airspace. However, the FAA is streamlining the process.”

    Once at China Lake, customers have access to a 70 naut.mi. “shoot box” and a 50-by-2,200 ft. UAV airstrip located on the outlying ranges. Miniature weapons are being built here as cheap, snap-together technology designs. And planners are working hard to create a facility that can support UAVs and whatever may come next which in the minds of researchers here will include higher performance, unmanned combat aircraft.

    “We are in the process of running a fiber optic cable to Coso Peak, 40 mi. away,” Biddlingmeier says. “That’s the highest point on our northern ranges. With the right equipment up there, we would have the virtual line-of-sight from this room [in the Unmanned Systems Center] needed to operate any UAS systems over the whole range.”

    The center is preparing for an unmanned systems boom by increasing its operator force, training controllers -- first on large radio-controlled airplanes and then the Pioneers and Scan Eagles. Flight operations are overseen by the VX-31 test squadron.

    Researchers are working on a capability that allows the China Lake facility to send information to UASs, and encrypted sensor data can be piped down to anyone with a laptop. It uses high resolution digital maps, off-the-shelf computers, government-owned code and a router that builds an encrypted, wireless network.

    In addition, the Unmanned Systems Activity has been realigned so that researchers and testers can talk in realtime and fly with operational pilots, software developers and test engineers as well as the Navy specialty schools.

    Tags: ar99, UAVs, ChinaLake, ScanEagle

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