The Dryden Flight Research Center, located at Edwards Air Force Base, California, is NASA's primary installation for flight research. Projects at Dryden over the past 50 years have led to major advancements in the design and capabilities of many civilian and military aircraft.
The history of the Dryden Flight Research Center is the story of modern flight research in this country. Since the pioneering days after World War II, when a small, intensely dedicated band of pilots, engineers, and technicians dared to challenge the sound barrier in the X-1, Dryden has been on the leading edge in aeronautics, and more recently, in space technology. The newest, the fastest, the highestall have made their debut in the vast, clear desert skies over Dryden.
Although NASA is celebrating 40 years of technology utilization, Dryden's foray into the world of spinoffs did not officially start until 1995, after NASA's "Agenda for Change" placed new emphasis on technology transfer. While Dryden is known primarily for its flight test capabilities, closer inspection of these technologies led to the development of an office devoted to the full-time protection and dissemination of these valuable assets.
Dryden's successes are far-reaching and supported by customers from industry, universities, and other government organizations. New research and technology directions are moving toward revolutionary aeronautics, intelligent systems, space access, and airborne sciences.
One of Dryden's earliest aeronautics success stories celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. Most modern aircraft utilize a digital flight control system (DFCS). Dryden engineers pioneered this system in 1972, with the F-8 Digital Fly-By-Wire aircraft research project. The DFCS concept incorporated an electronic flight-control system coupled with a digital computer to replace conventional flight controls. Dryden's work paved the way for the DFCS now used in the Space Shuttle and today's military and civilian aircraft, making them safer, more maneuverable, and more efficient.
Digital systems make aircraft more maneuverable because computers command more frequent adjustments than human pilots. Aircraft designers are no longer confined to designing features that make the aircraft more stable, thus harder to maneuver. For commercial airliners, computerized flight controls ensure a smoother ride than a human pilot alone could provide.
Another Dryden success story involves an uninhabited aerial vehicle. The Center is rightly proud of its participation in the solar-powered aircraft Helios prototype, which recently set an altitude record at 96,863 feet and made a run as a candidate for one of aviation's greatest prizes, the Collier Trophy. The project team also has new plans to fly the Helios at night, without solar power in 2003. The aircraft, a solar wing that resembles a yardstick with a wing span of 247 feet, or larger than that of NASA's Boeing 747, will demonstrate a newly developed fuel-cell-based power system. The Helios spent about 7 hours above 50,000 feet on its record-breaking, high-altitude flight August 13, 2001. This 2003 mission is expected to stay aloft for at least 14 hours above 50,000 feet, with different systems and procedures.
"Technically it's a very challenging mission. We fully expect to see some problems that require us to go back to the shop and test facilities and fix them and come back and fly," said John Del Frate, solar-powered aircraft project manager. "This is a whole new ballgame for us because we are trying to conquer the night."
AeroVironment, Inc., NASA's partner and the aircraft's builder, is developing the fuel-cell-based power systema step toward "flying an eternal airplane that could be sent on missions spanning months," said Del Frate. These capabilities are developed as part of Dryden's Environmental Research Aircraft and Sensor Technology (ERAST) Program that began in 1994.
AeroVironment has commercial plans underway as well. The company is training people for work on another high flying solar wing, the Pathfinder Plus, in Kauai, Hawaii. Scheduled for two commercial demonstration missions outside of the ERAST program, the Pathfinder Plus will provide a flight platform for a Japanese agency that wants to test some of their communications payloads in the stratosphere. The aircraft also will carry a remote sensing instrument to monitor Hawaiian coffee crops, a project sponsored by Clark University of Worchester, Massachusetts.
"It's gratifying to see commercial use of the solar flying wings. Ultimately the real commercialization of the airplane will blossom when it can routinely fly extreme duration flights because that's how you get the costs down," the project manager added. An aircraft with multi-week to multi-month flight capability opens the door to a new way of Earth monitoring. Helios could serve as a platform for disaster relief and crop monitoring, or follow the eye of a hurricane.
Another important Dryden spinoff is improving communications systems on Earth and in space. In 1997, NASA needed help in talking with the orbiting Space Shuttle. Due to an ever increasingly congested radio spectrum, the ability to hear the orbiter's radio signals required greater receiver sensitivity. Dryden partnered with Angle Linear, of Lomita, California, a manufacturer of linear radio frequency products and peripherals, to solve the problem. The solution was a receiving preamplifier specially crafted for NASA that made Shuttle communications more reliable. The company's preamplifier line was greatly expanded to cover a broader range of frequencies, providing the same improvement to other communication markets in trucking, land mobile, broadcast media, and cellular telephones.
As always, Dryden's research produces cutting-edge technology in aviation. How about an airplane that can heal itself and land safely following a catastrophe? A special NASA airplane that can alter its own computerized flight software to meet in-flight emergencies is getting ready for research flights next year. Dryden will operate the highly modified NF-15B aircraft in a series of flights in the Intelligent Flight Control System (IFCS) research project. IFCS is designed to incorporate self-learning neural network concepts into flight control software to enable a pilot to maintain control and safely land an aircraft that has suffered a major systems failure or combat damage. Flight evaluation of first- and second-generation self-learning neural network control software is expected to occur in 2003. Preliminary flight tests of an IFCS neural network that was pre-trained to the NF-15B's aerodynamic database were flown in spring 1999.
the Nation have seen the benefits on a daily
basis of Dryden's contributions to aerospace research-derived technologies.
Even though Dryden's Commercial Technology Office opened just 7 years
ago, modern aviationand the entire U.S. Space Programcould not have
prospered without the Center's heroic efforts over the past 50 years.
As one Dryden engineer said, "If
you've been on an airplane, you've benefited
from Dryden technology."
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