NMSU lands support role for major DARPA project
By Janet Perez
With a wingspan of 400 feet, the Vulture will be the largest unmanned aircraft
ever flown in the world, but for New Mexico State Universitys Physical
Science Laboratory its only the latest in a long string of groundbreaking
projects PSL has been working on for decades.
On Sept. 30, NMSU announced that PSL had entered a multi-million-dollar contract
with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to assist in the development
and flight-testing of the Vulture unmanned aerial vehicle, the prime contractor
of which is Boeing. Along with its 400-foot wingspan, the Vulture II will
weigh between 5,000 and 7,000 pounds light by other aircraft standards.
This is our first contract with DARPA, said Steve Hottman, associate
dean and deputy director for research at PSL. To be able to be in a
relationship with DARPA is very important for the university. When you think
of what they are trying to design and a platform that can remain up in the
atmosphere for five years, thats a lot of design challenges and its
pretty exciting stuff.
Rendering courtesy of Boeing
NMSUs Physical Science Laboratory has entered a multi-million-dollar
contract with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to assist in
the development and flight-testing of the Vulture unmanned aerial vehicle.
The Vulture II will have a 400-foot wingspan and weigh between 5,000 and
7,000 pounds. Boeing will build the aircraft.
If successful, the Vulture program could perform intelligence, surveillance
and reconnaissance, and communication missions. The aircraft will be fueled
by solar cells and an energy storage system that utilizes hydrogen. The craft
will be designed and built by Boeing.
The primary thing we will be doing is acting as a test location for
DARPA, Hottman said. In addition to that we are giving guidance
to Boeing and DARPA about design aspects of the aircraft related to airworthiness
and communications links. Were actually responsible for the airborne
safety and the ground safety.
Ground safety will be especially important, as the craft will be utilizing
hydrogen. PSL will be responsible for ensuring personnel are trained to detect
and deal with any hydrogen leaks.
While Boeing is constructing the mammoth Vulture, PSL will be building a
hangar and a runway at the Jornada Experimental Range, northeast of Las Cruces,
to accommodate the craft. The vehicle will require a 3,000-foot diameter
circle for level takeoffs. The U.S. Department of Agriculture owns the land
where the hangar and airport will be built, and Dave May, deputy director
of Global UAS Strategic Initiatives for PSL, credits NMSUs good
relationship with the agency for getting permission to use the property.
PSL has helped the USDA in the operations of its own unmanned aircraft.
Construction of the hangar will be in 2013. Boeing then will transport the
Vulture in sections to Jornada for assembly. PSLs involvement in the
project will continue into 2014, when flight-testing is expected to end.
The Spyder OPV aircraft is one of the models of unmanned aerial systems flown
by PSL. The UAS field is one of the fastest-growing industries in the world,
with spending over the next decade expected to double from $4.9 billion to
$11.5 billion annually.
Were working very closely with the design team at Boeing and
DARPA, as well as NASA, May said. A lot of our expertise is really
knowing what is going to be acceptable to the FAA; being able to say,
Heres a concern for us.
Along with its expertise with Federal Aviation Administration regulations,
two other major factors played a role in PSL landing the Vulture contract.
One of the reasons they picked us was cost, Hottman said.
Were a better value for DARPA. There were some tremendous cuts
(to the program), so they were looking at where they could do things more
The third deciding factor is NMSUs operation of the only FAA-authorized
UAS Flight Test Center in the United States. The center allows UAS operations
in the National Airspace System or civilian airspace. Data is collected during
unmanned flights in public, non-restricted airspace to assist FAA in the
development of standards and regulations for UAS operators. Under the FAA
agreement, the Flight Test Center can operate flights across more than 15,000
square miles of airspace in southwestern New Mexico.
May said he expects PSLs involvement in the Vulture program to not
only increase the department members expertise, but also continue the
upward momentum of NMSUs reputation in the unmanned aircraft field.
Anytime you have an ongoing operation youre getting valuable
experience; youre getting your name out there and people are saying,
Oh yeah, Ive read about that program. Success breeds
success, May said.
While the Vulture currently is the most high-profile project NMSU/PSL is
working on, it is by no means the only one.
In 1999, the Unmanned Aerial Systems Technical Analysis and Applications
Center, UAS TAAC for short, was established to promote the safe integration
of unmanned aircraft systems in the National Air Space. For a UAS to be flown
in the U.S. outside of military airspace, a certificate of authorization
or an experimental airworthiness certificate must be issued by the FAA.
Certificates of Authorization have been obtained by NMSU to operate the Aerostar
and Orbiter UAS. In addition, TAAC conducts flight operations within restricted
airspace, is involved in testing various UAS platforms and has produced a
roadmap that serves as a framework for UAS certification.
Along with its domestic projects, PSL has embarked on several international
programs over the years.
In the past, we actually traveled to Afghanistan and set up an operation
with the Dutch government under contract to the Israelis, Hottman said.
For that we had Department of Defense and State Department approval.
NMSU/PSL also owns six unmanned aircraft manufactured in Israel, and department
members have spoken at conferences across the world. PSL currently is working
with the governments of the Netherlands and England, as well as NASA and
the Defense Department, to create a system to deal with wayward unmanned
If you lose a communications link with an unmanned aircraft, right
now the manufacturers have some general rules these things follow,
Hottman said. One manufacturer may have one vehicle turn in a right-hand
circle incline, someone else may have a left-hand circle incline, somebody
may go dive and do something else.
One of the activities were looking at is coming up with a consistent
response, so that if you lose your communications link everyone would have
agreement across the world that these unmanned aircraft are going to have
a particular behavior, he continued. So air traffic controllers,
whether they be the FAA here or the CAA in Canada or something in Europe
or even (the Department of Defense), will all have an expectation that if
somebody hears system X located at coordinates Y and Z is in a lost-link
situation, they immediately know the behavior of the craft and can move other
aircraft away from it.
Remaining at the forefront of the UAS field is critical for NMSU/PSL, as
it is one of the fastest-growing industries in the world. According to a
2010 report by the Teal Group, an aerospace and defense industry analysis
firm, UAS spending over the next decade is expected to double from $4.9 billion
to $11.5 billion annually for a total 10-year expenditure of more than $80
billion. The market for payloads also is expected to double to $6 billion
However, this growing field faces many obstacles, including a lack of regulatory
guidance and policies for routine operations in civilian airspace; airworthiness
and maintenance; pilot certification; flight operations and collision avoidance;
insufficient bandwidth; high insurance rates; and technological challenges.
NMSU/PSL has been working with the industry, particularly through its annual
UAS TAAC Conference, to facilitate dialogue and partnerships aimed at finding
We have been able to build a reputation for ourselves through UAS TAAC.
That certainly has given us plenty of exposure, Hottman said.
Theres a respect and acknowledgement of the capabilities we have