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Yuma Proving Ground major player in unmanned aircraft world

May 5, 2014
By Chuck Wullenjohn

At the conclusion of World War II, nearly 70 years ago, Army Air Corps General Hap Arnold made an interesting observation. He said that the war had been won partially through the efforts of Americans flying aircraft, but predicted 'the next war may be fought by airplanes with no men in them at all.'

That's a startling prediction. Though it didn't prove accurate in the conflicts immediately following World War II, we may see it coming true soon. This past month the military reached the two million flight hour milestone mark for unmanned aircraft. When one considers that at the start of combat activities in Southwest Asia in 2003 the Air Force flew only one unmanned combat air patrol per day, while averaging well over 60 now, that represents quite a feat.

Yuma Proving Ground is a major player in the Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) testing world for both military and private industry customers. Its UAS workload has steadily increased over the past ten years. Today, the proving ground tests between seven and 10 different UAS-types each week for a total of 20 to 30 weekly individual flights. The annual total of unmanned aircraft flight hours performed within the proving ground's restricted airspace numbers well over 3000.

What attracts unmanned aircraft testers to Yuma? A number of factors make up that answer. Foremost is Yuma's year-round good weather, over 360 days per year, and Yuma's huge expanse of restricted airspace (over 2000 square miles over the proving ground alone.) Multiple airfields are available at YPG, with runways of varying lengths that enable testers to operate several flights at the same, plus plenty of hanger-space. In contrast, facilities in other states might have a limited number of available runways or require that all flights return to a single hub. Lastly, the proving ground's aviation workforce has developed a well-earned reputation for technical expertise and high quality customer service.

Robyn Tiaden, chief of YPG's aviation systems branch, says another factor exists as well. 'We offer unique instrumentation and a variety of target sets for our customers,' she said, 'that not all other test ranges have.'

These target sets can include armored vehicle hulls or stationary targets such as buildings or fighting positions, but they can also include something as simple as a thermal or infrared board which permits a sensor to seek the thermal conductivity that would radiate from a warm vehicle engine or even the warmth generated by a group of people.

'We like to think customers get more bang for the buck here than at other test facilities,' said Tiaden with a smile. 'Customers get their work accomplished in a timely fashion here, plus they don't often have to wait around due to bad weather or flight congestion.'

Unmanned aircraft tested at YPG have ranged from a two-foot wingspan vehicle launched by hand, a 60-foot wide long-endurance surveillance aircraft that takes off from a runway interspersed with manned aircraft, to an unmanned rotorcraft that carries a payload of over 6000 pounds. World records set at YPG include a 75-foot wide glider that flew for 14 days during the summer of 2010 at altitudes that climbed above 70,000 feet.

Whether test customers plan to use YPG's restricted airspace to test the initial flight capabilities of a new unmanned aircraft system or look to obtain a formal assessment on specific aircraft performance characteristics, Yuma Proving Ground's test experts are willing participants.

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