NASA has launched a new flight initiative aimed at understanding wind behaviors, which will contribute to increasing the safety of future air taxis. The study specifically examines wind patterns below altitudes of 2,000 feet.
The campaign, titled "Advanced Exploration of Reliable Operation at Low Altitudes: Meteorology, Simulation, and Technology," is stationed at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California. It involves the use of drones, weather balloons, sensors, and other advanced technological equipment to measure wind.
The primary objective of the research is to provide clarity on wind and weather phenomena that might interfere with Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) flights. This project sees collaboration between Armstrong and NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. The study commenced on July 20 and is scheduled to span until the end of August.
Grady Koch, the principal investigator for the project, emphasized the importance of data collection tools for conceptual planning of AAM vertiports to ensure safe operations. He noted the limitations of weather models and stressed the necessity of field measurements for accurate weather forecasting.
The Freefly Systems Alta-X quad rotor drone, a remotely piloted aircraft from NASA Armstrong, made its debut during the campaign's inaugural flight. Equipped with sensors, the drone was tasked with collecting data related to temperature, atmospheric pressure, relative humidity, and wind dimensions. Notably, the same ground station used by meteorologists supports these sensors on Alta-X, streamlining operations.
Koch also highlighted the campaign's focus on testing new sensor technologies and understanding wind flow around buildings. A significant innovation in this campaign is the "virtual tower concept" — consisting of two lidar units that employ lasers to gauge airflow from the ground to an altitude of 2,000 feet.
Planning and preparation for this campaign demanded significant manpower, with six meteorologists from NASA Armstrong setting up the equipment and executing weather forecasting. Luke Bard, the co-investigator, mentioned that the preparation began as far back as October 2022, when new equipment was acquired by the weather team.
For data collection, NASA Armstrong has deployed a 140-foot tower equipped with ultrasonic wind sensors, supplemented by several 10-foot weather stations that capture wind data. Additionally, sensors have been set up upwind of the test area to measure wind using sound pulses.
Koch explained that the acquired wind data would be pivotal in validating and enhancing new modeling methods. "We're not just looking at the aerodynamics of aircraft parts but also studying wind behaviors around large complex structures," he said, highlighting the versatility of the sensors and the Computational Fluid Dynamics approach they're using.
This wind research is a segment of NASA’s Convergent Aeronautics Solutions project, falling under the Transformative Aeronautical Concepts Program. The overarching aim is to champion innovative ideas that pave the way for safer and more efficient aviation solutions in response to the rising global air traffic and its subsequent challenges.