Nasa develops tough scientific drone that can fly for over two days in -40C

Image credit: nasa

Nasa has developed a super-robust scientific drone that is designed to carry out research in some of the most inhospitable locations on Earth.

Dubbed VA001, the drone (pictured above) can carry a payload weighing nearly 16kg, fly as high as 4.5km above sea level and operate in temperatures as low as -40°C.

“Our goal always is to advance state-of-the-art airborne capabilities and platforms tailored to the needs of our scientists,” said Geoff Bland, a research engineer at Nasa, who oversaw the aircraft’s development.

Now operational after months of development, the aircraft offers the scientific community complementary, easy-to-use capabilities at a lower cost.

The drone runs on jet-grade fuel, which contains corrosion inhibitors and anti-icing additives crucial to operations in the Arctic or Antarctica.

“It was an important part of the aircraft’s design to fly under the toughest and coldest conditions,” said Joe Famiglietti, the technology-infusion manager for Nasa’s Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) program.

Since Nasa’s initial SBIR investment in the aircraft’s development, Virginia-based Vanilla Aircraft has garnered support from the US Department of Defense (DoD), which funded a second prototype as well as test flights.

In one non-stop test flight, the VA001 flew for 56 hours on a single tank of fuel, proving the aircraft could meet both Nasa and DoD’s needs, Bland said.

“The dream mission would be for the VA001 to leave the Wallops Flight Facility, fly over Antarctica and then return after two days of mapping the changing ice. We could do this on demand for quick response to changing phenomena over the poles,” Bland said.

Nasa also worked on a drone called Black Swift (above) that is designed to fit inside a vehicle boot, take off anywhere and fly up to 90 minutes with a full payload.

The drone uses a specialised radiometer developed by the University of Colorado which is used to detect proportions of energy reflected from the objects over which it flies.

Scientists can use the energy readings, along with other aircraft sensors, to differentiate between water contained within the soil or vegetation. With this data, Nasa scientists can better understand soil-moisture levels and ground-truth Nasa’s ‘Soil Moisture Active Passive’ satellite data that scientists use to monitor drought, predict flooding, and assist in crop productivity.

Its use is not restricted to soil-moisture measurements: Black Swift has a modular ‘plug-and-fly’ instrument capability that can be tailored to virtually any location.

Nasa scientist Miguel Román at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland is now using the drone to map vegetation and climate dynamics.

The aircraft is continually evolving and will be able to observe volcanic plumes in the future, said Black Swift founder Jack Elston.

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