Conducted by researchers from NJIT's Crisis Communication Center and partners, the flight involved an RS-16 aircraft, a long-endurance unmanned aerial system (UAS) designed for civilian applications. The aircraft has a wingspan of nearly 13 feet and weighs 86 pounds. It can fly for 12-16 hours while carrying up to 25 pounds of sensors and other applications, at a speed of around 65 knots on 1.5 gallons of gasoline.
The NJIT team’s goal is to demonstrate UAS technology that can be deployed in response to natural or man-made disasters to assist state and federal homeland security and emergency management agencies.
The university launched its first three test flights in public airspace from the U.S. Coast Guard Training Center in Cape May, N.J. Each aircraft traveled about a nautical mile out over the ocean and carried several data-collecting instruments in its payload bay, including devices with mapping and communications-relay capabilities, in addition to video streaming.
The university and its partners are the first in New Jersey to conduct UAS flights under a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) program, says NJIT. The goal is to test the feasibility of safely integrating UAS into national airspace and to assess the research and operational capabilities of communications and mapping sensors aboard the craft.
From a mobile emergency operations center provided by Cape May County and parked on the side of the airstrip, observers watched real-time video streaming from the drone’s tailcam as it flew over the ocean. Pennsylvania-based American Aerospace operated the UAS from the Cape May facility.
The real-time sharing of intelligence gathered by the UAS, including streaming video, was enabled by Mutualink, a secure interoperable communications platform that gives people on the ground the ability to see in real time what the aircraft sees in flight, providing the link between the UAS and responders.
After each flight, the team assessed the drone’s operational performance, as well as its success in gathering data, which NJIT shared with the FAA and emergency management agencies.
“We are thrilled to have conducted these flights successfully and safely with the great team we put in place,” says Michael Chumer, a research professor of information systems at NJIT and director of the Crisis Communication Center and of UAS applied research for the university. “We will now apply to the FAA to take these capabilities a step further, and at some point, we would like to test them during an emergency.”
He adds, “We hope to mitigate the impact of storms and other disasters on communities by gathering information in advance, collecting real-time data on how a storm is developing, for example, to more accurately predict its destructive potential and prepare for it. Because these flights are unmanned, we can do this without putting people in harm's way.”
NJIT is a partner in the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP), a consortium housed at Virginia Tech, which last year was designated as one of the six UAS test sites.