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Increasing Options for Aerial Testbeds to Eliminate Single Aerial Asset Dependence

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Home / Mission / Site-Directed Research and Development / FY 2023 SDRD Annual Report Index / Increasing Options for Aerial Testbeds to Eliminate Single Aerial Asset Dependence

Project # 23-127 | Year 1 of 1

Michael Howard

Remote Sensing Lab – Nellis (RSLN)
This work was done by Mission Support and Test Services, LLC, under Contract No. DE-NA0003624 with the U.S. Department of Energy, the NNSA Office of Defense Programs, and supported by the Site-Directed Research and Development Program. DOE/NV/03624–1936.


This feasibility project was driven by the need to find alternative aerial platforms that support optical remote sensing missions. The need was realized by the lack of availability of Remote Sensing Laboratory (RSL) aviation assets to support FY 2022 SDRD research and other National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) operational optical remote sensing missions. An initial search in FY 2022 identified the Nevada Wing Civil Air Patrol (CAP) as a viable alternative aircraft provider as they fly the GA-8 for their search and rescue missions. Therefore, it was thought a good investment to use this alternative platform in FY 2023 to eliminate single aerial asset dependence. The focus for this feasibility project was to establish a programmatic path forward for the funding mechanism between Nevada National Security Sites (NNSS) and the U.S. Air Force Auxiliary and develop the sensor mounting and installation provisions for remote sensing optical equipment in the GA-8. Working with the Nevada Wing Commander and CAP leadership in Washington, D.C. headquarters, a draft Military Interdepartmental Purchase Request (MIPR) was generated to provide a template on how to transfer funds for CAP support. A CAP financial point of contact (POC) was identified to help facilitate future support needs. From a technical aspect, the project successfully designed, engineered, fabricated, and test fit all internal mounting provisions for an RSL optical payload on the CAP GA-8. Also required for the installation were two exterior structural components that were resolved without requiring additional Supplemental Type Certificates (STCs). The power system was the most challenging because an electrical load analysis was not available, however, this was overcome by fabricating an onboard battery case to power all the optical equipment. The technical achievements have enabled the integration of RSL’s optical sensor equipment onto the CAP GA-8. The next level of effort will include a Designated Engineering Representatives (DER) providing structural analysis of the mounting and installation provisions and the submission of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) form 8110-3. This will enable test flights of the integrated optical remote sensing equipment in order to fully verify that an alternate aerial platform is available for future research and operational missions.


SDRD and other NNSA research has been severely impacted by the sole reliance on RSL-N aviation assets. In FY 2022, the lack of a manned aerial platform stopped several research projects that had defined budget and schedules. This feasibility study was a follow-up effort to an FY 2022 approved plus-up funding under project NLV-030-20 “Enhancing Deep Cavity Detection Using Orthogonal Measurement Techniques.” The original concept for this project was to seek alternative manned platforms that could be used as research aerial testbeds and select a path forward to eliminate single aerial asset dependance. Based on the experiences in FY 2022, it was thought to be a wise investment to have an alternative aerial platform for future research that requires a manned aerial platform on a reliable basis. The effort was driven due to the lack of availability of the RSL-N aircraft, which affected both cost and schedule of our SDRD research. The research was forced to proceed with contract aircraft at much higher cost and other projects (SDRD Project 22-031, “Product Development to support NASA’s Artemis Program and Astronaut Training,” and several other NA-22 research projects) terminated in FY 2022. The terminated projects were delayed until the aircraft returned later in the second quarter of FY 2023. With this challenge, a search for available manned aircraft, open ports, long endurance, and adequate mission power revealed an opportunity with the Nevada Wing CAP.

In FY 2022, a working relationship was established with CAP leadership to approve future mission support. Both a programmatic and technical path forward was developed. After receiving CAP leadership approval, a technical design of the sensor installation began for the sensor payload integration. A preliminary sensor mount template was fabricated, and test fitted. Understanding the initial design of the mounting installation provisions and developing a mission Concept of Operations (CONOP) was the first requirement of the CAP operators to provide their recommendation to their headquarters.

Technical Approach

With the start of FY 2023, CAP was very enthusiastic to work with the optical remote sensing group at RSL because they saw the collaboration as mutually beneficial in which they provide a well-suited alternative aerial platform in the correct configuration and RSL provides optical remote sensing expertise for potential future projects. Col. Lynn, the Director of Operations Nevada Wing, was able to commit a POC in Las Vegas to help with the integration efforts. With this support, RSL was able to work directly with the GA-8 maintenance contractors and start discussions with CAP pilots regarding CONOPS. This allowed the feasibility study to move forward with the collaboration with the installation of RSL optical payloads in the CAP aircraft. The first task was to identify avenues for a MIPR between NNSS and CAP under the U.S. Air Force Auxiliary. A cost estimate was generated for the MIPR and a POC was identified with CAP that would work with NNSS to incorporate the cost estimate into a MIPR to support the FY 2023 integration and flight test.

The engineering effort then begins with designing mounting provisions and drafting engineering drawings for the Designated Engineering Representative (DER) analysis. With a final design for the sensor mount and equipment rack, a set of engineering drawings and 3D renderings are generated to satisfy the FAA DER requirements. The payload integration requires a power supply to power the optical equipment. The mission power circuit used by previous sensor payloads could not be verified with an Electrical Load Analysis (ELA), therefore, onboard batteries to meet the power requirements need to be designed and fabricated. Once the internal cabin integration items are designed and completed, two external hardware components need to be evaluated and resolved including verifying that the optical port glass has the correct transmission and a survey grade GPS antenna can be installed on top of the fuselage. After all the supporting documents and engineering drawings are done for the mounting provision, the next step is to subcontract DER services to provide structural analysis of the GA-8 mounting provisions and to certify that they meet 14 Code of Federal Regulations part 23 requirements.

Once completed, FAA Form 8110-3 is submitted for the Statement of Compliance with Airworthiness Standards. With the FAA Form 8110-3 approval, the mounting provisions are fabricated and bench tested with all sub-systems for integration compatibility. Lastly, the optical payloads are installed on the GA-8 to perform powered ground checks and test flights.

Results and Technical Accomplishments

Feasibility project 23-127 was technically successful in the design, engineering, fabrication, and test fitting of all internal mounting provisions for an RSL optical payload on the CAP GA-8. Furthermore, the integration of two exterior structural components were resolved without requiring additional STCs. Integration with the power system was the most challenging to overcome due to lack of documentation on the existing dedicated mission circuit. This was overcome by fabricating an onboard battery case to power all the optical equipment. The technical achievements enabled the integration of RSL’s optical sensor equipment on the CAP GA-8, however, delays caused by scheduling conflicts and overburden of programmatic tasks did not allow for the DER service sub-contract to be awarded in the 4th quarter.

Conclusions and Path Forward

All the tasks required for the DER and flight tests were completed including the purchase of all materials for the mounts, fabrication of the power system, a path forward for a MIPR, and completion of the engineering drawings required for the DER analysis. However, without FAA Form 8110-3, CAP would not allow the actual physical integration of the optical payload or flight test. If SDRD soft-landing funding is available in FY 2024, this project has a clear path forward to be fully successful with little effort.

A) Test fit of the finalized sensor mount template and electronics rack in the CAP GA-8; B) Onboard battery case for the optical payload power requirements; C) Transmittance profile of existing GA-8 port glass, Corning Optics item #7980

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