NASA’s Prototype Carbon Fibre Drone Completes Flight Test

The team, at NASA’s Langley Research Centre in Hampton, Virginia, is looking at the idea initially as a potential unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that could be used for small package delivery or vertical take off and landing, long endurance surveillance for agriculture, mapping and other applications.

The initial thought was to develop a 20-foot wingspan (6.1 metres) aircraft powered by hybrid diesel/electric engines, but the team started with smaller versions for testing, built by rapid prototyping. Engineers built 12 prototypes, starting with simple 2.3 kilograms foam models and then 11.3 kilograms, highly modified fibreglass hobby airplane kits which led up to the 24.9 kilograms, high quality, carbon fibre GL–10 built in NASA’s model shop by expert technicians.

Each prototype helped us answer technical questions while keeping costs down. We did lose some of the early prototypes to ‘hard landings’ as we learned how to configure the flight control system. But we discovered something from each loss and were able to keep moving forward.

During a recent spring day the engineers took the GL–10 to test its wings at a military base about two hours away from NASA Langley. The remotely piloted plane has a 10-foot wingspan (3.05 meters), eight electric motors on the wings, two electric motors on the tail and weighs a maximum of 28.1 kilograms at take off.

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The GL-10 had already passed hover tests with flying colours, but now was the transition from vertical to forward “wing-borne” flight. As engineers who have designed full-scale vertical take off and landing tilt rotors such as the V–22 Osprey will tell you – that is no easy task because of the challenging flight aerodynamics.

The next step in the GL–10 test program is to try to confirm its aerodynamic efficiency, but first is a stop at the Association for Unmanned Vehicles Systems International 2015 conference in Atlanta May 4–7. The GL–10 will be the centrepiece of an exhibit showcasing some of NASA Langley’s UAV research.

Part of the UAV research is for NASA Aeronautics’ Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration in the National Airspace System Project, led out of the Armstrong Flight Research Centre in Edwards, California. Engineers from Armstrong will highlight project accomplishments and upcoming work in a booth in Atlanta. The goal of the project is to provide research results to reduce the technical barriers associated with integrating unmanned aerial vehicles into the skies.