Monday, August 31, 2009

INSPIRE Student Interns Learning Flight Test First-Hand

Student interns in NASA's INSPIRE program are learning first-hand about the start-to-finish lifecycle of flight testing experimental aircraft this summer by working in teams to build, flight test and analyze data from two small-scale remote-controlled airplanes at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center.

As with all experimental flight research at NASA Dryden, the students proceeded through a series of technical reviews, safety analyses, development of mission rules and flight operations before conducting actual data-collection flights. After their arrival June 8, the students began 2 ½ weeks learning aerodynamics, systems engineering, safety, and Dryden's flight approval process. They also measured the geometry of the model aircraft selected for the project, and used their new knowledge to estimate its performance.

The students then took an additional 2 ½ weeks to make flight cards detailing each of the test points they wished to accomplish, perform static thrust testing and a combined systems test. In addition, they assessed programmatic and human risks and found mitigations as needed. They presented these results, along with plans for safely conducting flight operations, at a formal technical briefing, a requirement to receive approval for actual flight tests.

Two identical Electrostik RXR aircraft were chosen for the student project because they were large enough to hold the sensors and for their ease of assembly. The aircraft were then modified with a sensor suite from Eagle Tree Flight Systems that includes a pitot-static system, GPS, temperature probes, and accelerometers. The students installed all of the sensors and performed static thrust testing to pick the optimal propeller.

Once all the preparations and processes were completed, the student interns proceeded to conduct two rounds of actual flight tests. Thirteen flights were flown July 13 and 14 over a model aircraft flight operations area along the north edge of Rosamond Dry Lake on Edwards Air Force Base, about 10 miles from NASA Dryden. The short flights focused on aircraft performance issues, such as control-surface trim, air-data calibration, lift and drag, thrust required for level flight, turn performance and rate of climb.

As often occurs in flight testing, some technical glitches were encountered when the students were not able to get positive confirmation that the second aircraft's data collection system was working properly and had to use the other aircraft for most of the flight testing, explained NASA Dryden controls and dynamics engineer Brian Taylor, who is serving as a mentor to the students. After the students took a quick look at the data, however, they found that the second aircraft was recording flight data properly, and are now analyzing data from all of the flights to compare it with their earlier estimates. They will detail their results at a final briefing on July 30.

"The students are getting a small dose of the realities of flight research and test," commented Bradley C. Flick, Chief Engineer at NASA Dryden. "Dealing with system failures and uncertainties are commonplace and they're learning more about engineering than they would have if everything had been perfect from the start."

INSPIRE is an acronym for Interdisciplinary National Science Project Incorporating Research and Education Experience, a multi-tiered year round program designed for students in ninth-to-12th grades who are interested in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education and careers. According to Kendra Titus, Student & Faculty Programs Coordinator at NASA Dryden's Office of Education, the INSPIRE summer internship program provides direct project experience for students who are interested in engineering careers and who will be entering their senior year in high school or their freshman year in college in the fall.

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