Emerging Technologies CTF conducts its first test

EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- The newly formed Emerging Technologies Combined Test Force completed its first test high above Edwards Feb. 13.

The test event supported the Portable Airborne Telemetry Boresight Innovation Project. The test was conducted for the 412th Range Squadron which wanted to see if it was possible to use a small unmanned aerial system to calibrate the range squadron’s telemetry antennas.

The antennas are an important part of Edwards AFB’s flight test operations and are needed to transmit and streamline data from instrumented aircraft to testers on the ground. The antennas have to be calibrated at least once a month.

“There are two methods currently used for calibrating the tracking function of our TM antennas,” said Steven Davies, 812th Test Support Squadron program manager. “The first method uses the sun as a signal source. The sun is a fairly weak signal source that may not always provide a suitable signal for performing calibrations. The second method utilizes boresight towers located near the TM sites. These towers do not provide an optimal pointing angle for all TM antennas. Ground reflections and frequency interferers effect the use of the boresight towers.”

The overall test objective was to validate the use of a small UAS as a flying radio frequency boresight. A quadcopter was affixed with an antenna and transmitter, and was flown on three test sorties up to an altitude of 500 feet above ground level and 3,000 feet away from the antennas.

“The specific test objective that we were trying to meet was to determine whether the test aircraft has enough hover precision and signal strength for telemetry antenna calibration,” said Capt. Justin Merrick, ET CTF lead engineer. “The sorties were to test short- and long-range calibration utility in the L, S and C frequency bands. The short range data will be used to compare to the boresight tower calibrations that the 412th RANS currently performs. The long range data will be used to compare to the sun calibrations that RANS also performs.”

Test data collected included stability data from the quadcopter when hovering, calibration data, signal strength and time data to determine how long the calibrations took as well as flight time and transit times, Merrick said.

“Our biggest challenge is pacing. Due to the short battery life (of the quadcopter), we have to try and accomplish the test points, especially the transitions between points, as quickly as possible. On the flip side of that, we have to make sure that we are not going so fast as to compromise the safety and efficiency of the test by making mistakes,” Merrick said.

Three flight test sorties were conducted, each one with a new battery plugged into the quadcopter.

“The quad is quite easy to pilot, it is GPS stabilized so the effort is much lower than a racing-type quadcopter that you might see on TV,” Merrick said.

“The mission was successful, we met the success criteria in the test plan of obtaining one calibration in each band at both the short- and long-range distances. In some cases, largely depending on battery life and how long the calibrations took, we exceeded this criteria.”

Members of the 412th RANS hope the results of this test will pave the wave for more efficient antenna calibration procedures.

“The 412th RANS JT3 telemetry subject matter expert Bob Selbrede originally came up with the idea,” Davies said. “From the project’s inception, the JT3 team has been executing the project in conjunction with the ET CTF. The work completed by these groups will be instrumental in developing an agile and versatile method to calibrate TM tracking systems. This capability will support test and evaluation efforts by producing a more accurate telemetry tracking system.”

The Emerging Technologies CTF was officially activated last July and its mission is to provide agile, innovative flight test capabilities for emerging technologies and to explore the Air Force warfighting capabilities of tomorrow. Current focuses are on the use of small unmanned aerial systems for testing and operational use, and on autonomous systems development and use.