Predator B / Altair
NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center partnered with General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc., (GA-ASI) to demonstrate technologies that would expand the capabilities of remotely operated, uninhabited aircraft to perform high-altitude earth science missions. To accomplish the task, GA-ASI developed an enlarged version of its Predator reconnaissance aircraft, called the Predator B®, a family which included an extended-wingspan Altair version for NASA, to meet these requirements.
GA-ASI's task under NASA's Environmental Research Aircraft and Sensor Technology (ERAST) Joint Sponsored Research Agreement called for the San Diego firm to develop and demonstrate technical performance and operational capabilities that would meet the needs of the science community. As joint partners in the project, which covered flight validation as well as development of the aircraft, NASA's Office of Aerospace Technology was investing approximately $10 million, while GA-ASI was contributing additional funds, with about $8 million earmarked for the Altair project.
NASA's Office of Earth Science established a stringent set of requirements for the conventionally powered, remotely or autonomously operated aircraft. Among these requirements were a mission endurance of 24 to 48 hours at a primary altitude range of 40,000 to 65,000 feet with a payload of at least 660 lb (300 kg). Another key requirement was to develop the capability and operational procedures to allow operations from conventional airports without conflict with piloted aircraft. In addition, the Altair would have to demonstrate "over-the-horizon" command and control beyond line-of-sight radio capability via a satellite link, "see-and-avoid" operation in unrestricted airspace and the ability to communicate with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) controllers. The aircraft would also have to meet all FAA airworthiness and maintenance standards.
The Altair technology-demonstration variant for NASA was designed to carry an equivalent payload for as long as 32 hours at up to 52,000 feet. Eleven-foot extensions would be added to each wingtip, giving the Altair an overall wingspan of 86 feet with an aspect ratio of 23.5. It would be powered by the TPE-331-10 turboprop engine, and was also expected to begin flight tests in the spring of 2002.
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