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Georgia Tech uses drone to test lightweight sensors

18 Jan 2013

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The rapidly increasing use of unmanned aircraft prompted a research team at Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) to develop an aerial test bed for testing the capability for sensors, communications devices and other airborne payloads. The aerial test bed is based on an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) made by Griffon Aerospace and is called the GTRI Airborne Unmanned Sensor System (GAUSS).

"Given suitable technology, small UAVs can perform complex, low-altitude missions effectively and at lower cost," said Michael Brinkmann, a GTRI principal research engineer who is leading the work.

The current project includes development, installation and testing of a sensor suite relevant to many of GTRI's customers. This suite consists of a camera package, a signals intelligence package for detecting and locating ground-based emitters, and a multi-channel ground-mapping radar.

The radar is being designed using phased-array antenna technology that enables electronic scanning. This approach is more flexible and agile than traditional mechanically steered antennas.

The combined sensor package is lightweight enough to be carried by the GAUSS UAV, which is a variant of the Griffon Outlaw ER aircraft and has a 13.6-foot wingspan and a payload capacity of approximately 18kg.

The aircraft navigates using a high precision global positioning system (GPS) combined with an inertial navigation system. These help guide the UAV, which can be programmed for autonomous flight or piloted manually from the ground. The airborne mission package also includes multi-terabyte onboard data recording and a stabilised gimbal that isolates the camera from aircraft movement.

Georgia Tech test drone

The GTRI Airborne Unmanned Sensor System (GAUSS) is used to evaluate sensing devices in airborne testing. The unmanned aerial vehicle, manufactured by Griffon Aerospace and modified by GTRI, has a wingspan of 13.6 feet and can carry a 40-pound payload.

The disadvantage of heavier sensors

Heavier sensor designs have several disadvantages, observed Mike Heiges, a principal research engineer who leads the GTRI team that is responsible for flying and maintaining the UAV platform. Larger sensors require larger unmanned aircraft to carry them, and those aircraft use bigger engines and must fly higher to avoid detection.

"Rather than have your design spiral upwards until you're using very large and expensive aircraft, smaller sensors allow the use of smaller aircraft," Heiges said. "A smaller UAV saves money and is logistically easier to support. But most important, it can gather information closer to the tactical level on the ground, where it's arguably most valuable."

The GTRI team has developed a modular design that allows the GAUSS platform to be reconfigured for a number of sensor types. Among the possibilities for evaluation are devices that utilise light detection and ranging (LIDAR) technology and chemical-biological sensing technology.

The radar package that GTRI is currently installing and testing is complex, Brinkmann explained. In addition to phased-array scanning capability, the radar operates in the X-band, is capable of five acquisition modes and can be programmed to transmit arbitrary waveforms.

"This radar is a very flexible system that will be able to do ground mapping, as well as detecting and tracking objects moving around on the ground," Brinkmann said.

Possible applications include using the signals intelligence package to locate people buried in rubble by searching for cell phone signals. A group of self-guided UAVs could be used to create an ad hoc cell phone network.

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