The United States military has used unmanned aerial systems (UAS) for decades, and increasingly counts on them to perform dangerous missions that save Soldiers’ lives.
Among these flying wonders is the Aerosonde, a catapult-launched and net recovered aircraft used primarily for surveillance and reconnaissance.
Capable of 15 hours of flight time, the Aerosonde is highly portable and boasts outstanding optics at high altitudes. The system has undergone extensive testing at U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground (YPG) for most of its existence.
“We test here whenever we have changes to the system,” said Kyle Petesch, Aerosonde site lead. “The YPG personnel are very attentive to what we ask for and easy to work with.”
“Aerosonde has been testing here for more than 12 years,” added Matthew O’Donald, test officer. “It’s a well-proven machine, and there have been numerous upgrades over the years.”
The sheer volume of commercial air traffic in the United States means that conducting developmental testing of even the smallest UAS in a safe, sustained manner within the national airspace is highly problematical. However, such constraints do not exist at YPG—the proving ground controls nearly 2,000 square miles of restricted airspace in addition to boasting clear, stable air and an extremely dry climate where inclement weather is a rarity.
“We have perfect flying weather, well over 300 clear days per year,” said O’Donald. “We have such a wide flight area of restricted airspace that’s perfect for customers to get what they need.”
“We like the nice, clear weather without a lot of clouds or rain delays, and definitely like the range space we can get here,” added Petesch. “The flat desert is good for emplacing ground stations and measuring farther distances without trees or line-of-sight issues.”
Aerosonde is typically deployed in a system with multiple aircraft and ground control stations, all of which can be accommodated in a realistic manner at YPG. The vast range and air space here means the testers can easily evaluate things like fuel consumption and the ability to smoothly hand-off control of the craft between controllers located in multiple ground control stations.
“We test not only to integrate products our customers want, but also to improve our own system’s reliability,” said James Ruthven, senior engineering support manger. “In the end, that helps our country’s mission overseas by having a quiet, reliable aircraft that provides good optics and other sensors.”
The Aerosonde is a relatively quiet aircraft, as is necessary for its surveillance mission.
“Our end user—a platoon out in the field—doesn’t want their targets to know they’re being watched,” said Ruthven. “Our engine and aircraft has to be quiet, so coming here affords us the opportunity to put people out in the desert and do acoustic measurements. We can tailor how we operate in the real world based on the findings we have here.”
The proving ground’s extensive experience with testing UAS and associated sensors is another attraction, as is the ability to control a large swath of the radio frequency (RF) spectrum. YPG has more than 500 permanent radio frequencies, and several thousand temporary ones in a given month.
“This is the easiest place for us to operate, and we get the most complete and comprehensive coverage in support of what we’re doing,” said Ruthven. “The heat and density altitudes that we find in this local environment are very similar to a lot of the places we’re operating in overseas.”
The Aerosonde will continue coming to YPG for testing well into the future, Ruthven added.
“We’re looking at our technology roadmap and trying to grow what our system can do for the customer to meet their needs for the next decade to come,” he said. “Utilizing the test ranges, frequencies, and facilities here is crucial to us getting to that point. The work we were able to do at YPG got us to this point.”