UMass Amherst Researchers Provide Weather Alerting Technology for Successful NASA Unmanned Aircraft Systems Demonstration Flight in Texas

unmanned aircraft system in flight
unmanned aircraft system in flight

AMHERST, Mass. – Researchers at the Engineering Research Center for Collaborative Adaptive Sensing of the Atmosphere (CASA) contributed to a recent successful joint demonstration in Fort Worth, Texas, of an unmanned aircraft system by Bell Textron Inc. and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

The CASA team provided an intuitive, integrated display to give remote pilots of the Bell Autonomous Pod Transport 70 (APT 70) enhanced weather risk awareness, including weather data from CASA’s X-band radar network, which is deployed in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. CASA was named a collaborative partner on the project in 2018.

“Weather poses a significant challenge to unmanned aircraft systems, especially in large cities, where aircraft will take off and land from vertiports and rooftops within the urban landscape, close to where people work and live. Our efforts focused on integrating weather data from multiple sources and alerting the pilots about potential weather hazards along the route,” said Apoorva Bajaj, CASA’s innovation manager, who is leading the efforts to establish an Urban Aviation Weather Test Bed in the Dallas – Fort Worth area.

CASA’s weather hazard alerting platform, known as CityWarn, was developed using grants from the Partnerships for Innovation and the Hazards and Disasters programs at the National Science Foundation. Brenda Philips, co-Director of CASA and research faculty in Electrical and Computer Engineering is the principal investigator on these grants. “CityWarn is currently being used to send personalized severe weather alerts to emergency managers and the general public. For this NASA project, we expanded its capabilities to provide alerts based on the planned route of a drone flight.”

The objective of Bell’s SIO demonstration was to execute a Beyond Visual Line-of-Sight (BVLOS) mission in an urban environment transitioning into and out of Class B airspace representing future commercial flights. Mission results will be used to evaluate and demonstrate Detect and Avoid (DAA) and Command and Control (C2) technologies for use in future certified operations in controlled and uncontrolled airspace. Data collected during the demonstration will be used to support future standards development and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification guidelines.

The diversity of low-altitude operations is ever increasing with applications such as package and medical supplies delivery by drones and manned and unmanned air taxis to address urban mobility being developed and demonstrated by commercial firms and universities and supported through NASA and FAA. Many of these operations will take place 500-1,500 feet above ground level, putting them in a zone currently underserved by existing weather surveillance systems that have been designed primarily to support manned operations at higher altitudes for most parts of the country. CASA’s X-band radars have specifically been designed to fill low-altitude gaps in weather surveillance, making them ideal to minimize operational risks associated with quickly developing thunderstorms.

“We combine the data from our radars with data from government radars, ground-based weather stations and forecast models to determine the location and timing of weather hazards, and use cloud computing resources to quickly determine the threat to planned operations”, said Eric Lyons, research fellow and one of the chief software architects of the system.

On Monday, the APT 70 launched from Bell’s Floyd Carlson Field in Fort Worth, Texas, and flew a preprogrammed 10-mile circuit path along the Trinity River. Once armed from the ground control station, the APT 70 initiated a vertical takeoff. The vehicle then rotated to fly on its wings where it became nearly silent to the ground below. The vehicle executed its mission profile at an altitude of 500 feet above ground level. The route included a road crossing and transition in and out of Class B airspace. Communication between the ground station and the aircraft was maintained through a redundant datalink.

In addition to visual observers, a prototype airborne detect and avoid system provided the remote pilot with awareness of air traffic in the vicinity and recommended flight maneuvers, while CityWarn monitored weather threats.

In the future, Bell envisions an operational APT 70 that can provide efficient and rapid transport of payloads up to 70 pounds. The APT 70 is estimated to move three times faster than ground transportation, and its many potential uses include third-party logistics, offshore delivery and humanitarian and medical deliveries.