Testing UAV Sensors on the Cheap

This story was originally published in the Georgia Tech Alumni MagazineVol. 90, No. 2, 2014

Got an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) sensor payload in need of testing? Well, Georgia Tech is set to offer defense customers an experimental aircraft on which to place it—at a fraction of the cost it would take to integrate that same payload on a conventional UAV.

The new test bed is called the GTRI Airborne Unmanned Sensor System (GAUSS). “It gives us the ability to offer proof of principle tests to customers at a price that’s reasonable, at a schedule that’s reasonable,” says Mike Brinkmann, MS EE 91, principal research engineer for sensor packages for the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI).

GAUSS is based on the Griffon Aerospace Outlaw ER test UAV, which Tech purchased from Griffon and subsequently modified. The test bed has a 16-foot wingspan and weighs about 140 pounds, with a 35-pound payload capacity. Under Georgia Tech’s authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), GAUSS can operate at a maximum ceiling of 5,000 feet, but it is capable of flying higher.

Some of the modifications GTRI researchers made to the Outlaw ER are immediately apparent. “In particular, we put pods on the wings to carry the radar system and power supply, and we made some modifications internally,” says Mike Heiges, AE 85, MS AE 86, PhD AE 89, GTRI’s principal aircraft research engineer for the project.

To prove it can test a variety of sensors on GAUSS, GTRI is integrating three different systems. The first is a visual light camera, the second is an RF signal detection package; and the third is a four-channel, side-looking radar designed to map the ground.

The radar is one of the first systems with these capabilities designed to be fitted on an aircraft as small as the GAUSS, and should be flying onboard it soon. “The two sensors that we have—the signals recorder and also the radar—we’re hoping will open some doors for GTRI to conduct sponsored research with a number of customers that would like to have combinations or variations on those things,” Brinkmann says.

Heiges adds that GRTI has an advantage over potential competitors because the Institute has authorizations from the FAA to allow it to fly the GAUSS at several locations around the country.

“That’s a huge deal,” Brinkmann says.

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  • Mike Heiges (right) adjusts GTRI’s Airborne Unmanned Sensor System (GAUSS)

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