The NASA Ames Research Center (ARC) was founded in 1939 to test wind tunnel research on aircraft. Today with an estimated $860 million annual budget and about $3 billion worth of research equipment, ARC plays major roles in many NASA projects involving spaceflight and information technology. Located about 12 miles north of San Jose, CA, under the leadership of Director Eugene Tu, ARC recently entered a partnership with the American engineering company, Swift Engineering, to build a High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) drone.
In 1983, a group of race car enthusiasts founded Swift Cars to design, develop, and race cars. They became famous with cars winning races all over the world. Experts at designing vehicles made for speed, Swift Engineering was born and a shift was made to aviation. As Swift Engineering proudly states, they are a company “Rooted in racing, Destined to fly.” In 2018, Swift approached ARC with a concept for drone design that has long been a goal for NASA to have developed by an American based manufacturer. The build would be for a drone that could operate at an altitude of 70,000 ft and could remain airborne for up to 30 days.
HALE drones are used for a wide range of applications, both for military and research firms. For the military, HALE drones are used for surveillance missions, almost like how spy planes were once used. For research, they can gather data for extended periods of time to show how environments change. Most HALE drones are large, expensive, and not easily replaced if something goes wrong. The specific goals outlined by NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research/Small Business Technology Transfer program through ARC was for a cost efficient, low energy HALE drone that could be completely made on American soil.
Swift was given a 2 year window in which to build such a drone, with full support from the resources available at ARC. The Swift HALE UAS (unmanned aircraft systems) is a 72ft, approximately 180lbs, fully autonomous, solar powered drone. It can carry an additional payload of 15lbs and because it is solar powered, it is inexpensive to manufacture and operate. Now at the end of the 2 year development stage, Swift and ARC have entered the flight check phase. These tests are going to check the readiness of the drone for missions lasting 24 hrs, 48 hrs, and then 7 days.
On July 7, 2020, Swift completed the initial test flight at New Mexico’s Spaceport America. According to its website, “Spaceport America is the first purpose-built commercial spaceport in the world. The FAA-licensed launch complex, situated on 18,000 acres adjacent to the U.S. Army White Sands Missile Range in southern New Mexico, has a rocket friendly environment of 6,000 square miles of restricted airspace, low population density, a 12,000-foot by 200-foot runway, vertical launch complexes, and about 340 days of sunshine and low humidity.” Spaceport America provides optimal conditions to test a drone like the Swift HALE UAS. The test proved that the drone was flight ready, and capable of moving on to the next phase of longer endurance flights.
The Swift HALE Drone has received airworthiness certification from NASA, a Certificate of Authorization from the FAA, and 2 technology patents. “This program signifies an important partnership with NASA Science and Aeronautics – together, we designed a UAS that fulfills the agency’s use cases and aligns with the Federal Aviation Administration’s vision of how HALE vehicles should be deployed and maintained for extended periods,” said Andrew Streett, Vice President of Technology at Swift Engineering. “Sustained, long-duration flights are only just becoming a reality with a new generation of batteries and power efficiencies.” Low cost HALE drones can change the way scientists study the earth as well as the way the military monitors, surveys and protects its assets.