Located in Edwards, California in the western Mojave Desert, the Hugh L. Dryden Flight Research Center was renamed in 2014 to honor astronaut Neil Armstrong. NASA Armstrong is chartered to research and test advanced aeronautics, space, and related technologies that are critical to carrying out NASA’s missions of space exploration, space operations, scientific discovery, and aeronautical research and development.

Since its deployment into the USAF’s F-16 fleet in 2014, Armstrong’s automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System (Auto GCAS) saved the lives of eight pilots by 2018. (NASA)

Armstrong flight-tests some of the nation’s most unique aircraft and aeronautical systems and conducts flight operations for a wide variety of airborne science missions. In support of space exploration, the center is managing launch abort systems testing and integration, in partnership with Johnson Space Center and Lockheed Martin, for the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, a spacecraft built to take humans to the Moon and Mars. Armstrong also provides space-to-ground communications support for the International Space Station.

NASA Armstrong was directly involved in the now-concluded Space Shuttle Program for more than 35 years, serving as the primary alternate landing site for the operational shuttles from 1981 until the last shuttle flight in 2011.

Armstrong is involved in many aspects of NASA’s Fundamental Aeronautics and Aviation Safety programs. Current or recent projects have involved improving fuel efficiencies and reducing potentially harmful exhaust emissions, noise reduction on takeoff and landing via aerodynamic improvements including flexible control surfaces, research into vehicle integrated propulsion, and development of systems and procedures to safely integrate remotely or autonomously operated aircraft into the national airspace with aircraft flown by onboard pilots.

Fiber Optic Sensing System (FOSS) technologies, developed for aeronautics research, can solve a number of technical challenges for industries as diverse as medical, power, beverage, and automotive. NASA’s unmanned Ikhana aircraft was the first to fly with a FOSS wing shape sensor. (NASA)

Armstrong also supports NASA’s space technology development efforts through its management of the Flight Opportunities Program, which provides flights on a variety of sub-orbital vehicles, balloons, and aircraft to developers of various technology payloads that could aid NASA’s future space exploration activities.

Airborne Science Operations

Armstrong’s Airborne Science Program uses the center’s unique aircraft and sensors to conduct observations and collect atmospheric data as well as advance the use of satellite data. The primary objectives include conducting in-situ atmospheric measurements, collecting high-resolution imagery for spaceborne calibration, developing new technologies such as remotely operated unmanned aircraft systems, testing new sensor technologies in space-like environments, and calibrating/validating space-based measurements and retrieval algorithms.

NASA’s DC-8 aircraft carries sensors that collect data in support of scientific projects in archaeology, ecology, soil science, geography, hydrology, meteorology, atmospheric chemistry, oceanography, volcanology, and biology. NASA also uses Lockheed ER-2 Earth resources aircraft as flying laboratories that study Earth, celestial observations, atmospheric chemistry and dynamics, and oceanic processes.

NASA’s C-20A has been modified and instrumented as a platform for a variety of Earth science research experiments. The aircraft features a Platform Precision Autopilot designed by engineers at Armstrong that allows the aircraft to conduct repeat passes virtually identical to previously flown flight paths to obtain precision measurements using the radar instrument to compare with data obtained on prior passes over the same terrain.

A General Atomics Predator B unmanned aircraft system named Ikhana is available for both environmental science and aeronautical research experiments. It is designed for long-endurance, medium-altitude flight and can carry a variety of atmospheric and remote sensing instruments including duplicates of those sensors on orbiting satellites. One Global Hawk aircraft is used on a variety of Earth science missions requiring high-altitude, long-endurance capabilities. The ability of the unmanned Global Hawk to autonomously fly long distances and remain aloft for extended periods brings a new capability to the science community for measuring, monitoring, and observing remote locations on Earth.

Flight Research, Test, and Engineering

The Flight Research, Test, and Engineering Directorate provides research and project support engineering to Armstrong. It is comprised of the six branches described below.

Aerostructures Branch

The Aerostructures Branch covers airframe structure disciplines including static structures, structural dynamics, external and aerothermal loads, and hot structures. The branch has experience in flight projects such as extremely light-weight, high-altitude aircraft; transports; high-performance military aircraft; and hypersonic vehicles. The Flight Loads Lab (FLL) develops advanced sensor technology for flight and ground test including structural health monitoring, extreme temperature environments, active aeroelastic control for weight reduction and/or performance enhancement, morphing structures, thermal protection systems for hypersonic vehicles, and external and internal loads for advanced vehicle configurations.

Flight Systems Branch

Cockpit Interactive Sonic Boom Display Avionics (CISBoomDA) software displays the location and intensity of shockwaves caused by supersonic aircraft. It can be integrated into cockpits and flight control rooms, enabling pilots and air traffic controllers to make in-flight adjustments to control the timing and location of sonic booms. (NASA)

The Flight Systems Branch consists of two groups: avionics engineering and systems integration and test. The branch performs development activities and supports the NASA Mission Directorates through projects like the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA); Commercial Crew development program; and supersonic, subsonic, aviation safety, and integrated systems research programs. The branch develops avionics and control systems for flight platforms including specifying, designing, developing, verifying, validating, implementing, and supporting avionics systems (hardware and software) for flight. Technologies involve flight control systems, small prototype hardware development, cockpit display development, and UAV systems design and development.

Systems Engineering and Integration (SE&I) Branch

The SE&I branch focuses on defining, implementing, integrating, and operating a system (product or service) including the engineering activities and technical management activities related to the system. The goal is to provide systems engineering services to ensure that Armstrong systems are designed, built, and operated in the most cost-effective way possible. The branch provides high-quality systems engineering expertise and supports large and complex flight and space projects including SOFIA.

Aerodynamics and Propulsion Branch

Work on the Prandtl-D aircraft led to the Prandtl-M concept for a Mars airplane that could collect and transmit valuable information — including suitable landing sites — back to Earth. The aircraft would be able to deploy, fly in the Martian atmosphere, glide down, and land. (NASA/Dennis Calaba)

The Aerodynamics and Propulsion Branch capabilities include aerodynamics, propulsion and performance, flow physics, and aerospace meteorology. New technologies and flight test techniques supported include Towed Glider Air-Launch System (TGALS), Airborne Background-Oriented Schlieren (AirBOS), and Background Oriented Schlieren using Celestial Objects (BOSCO). Branch capabilities also include flow visualization, internal fluid mechanics, sonic boom measurement, air data measurement, turbine/rocket/scramjet engine technology, alternative power systems/fuel cells, and next-generation launch/propulsion concepts.

Sensors & Systems Development Branch

The Sensors & Systems Development Branch consists of two focused groups: Research Avionic Systems Development and Sensor and Technology Research and Development. The branch is responsible for the missions’ avionic systems development for flight and/or ground tests (in hardware and software areas) and new sensing technique research and development. The branch works with the Vehicle Integration and Test Branch to integrate developed systems onto aircraft to serve the flight projects’ purposes. Services include mission avionic system design and development such as cockpit displays, real-time embedded systems, autopilot command and control, power systems, and printed circuit boards. Other capabilities include development and support of electric propulsion, fiber optic sensing, autonomous systems, and aircraft collision avoidance systems.

Dynamics and Controls Branch

The Dynamics and Controls branch specializes in research of flight control systems, components, and methodologies. In addition, the branch supports projects in the form of stability and controls analysis, handling qualities analysis, and verification and validation testing. Capabilities include safety flight validation, control of aeroelastic structures, intelligent/adaptive/robust flight control, autonomous air-to-air refueling, collision avoidance, flight research data support, and simulation and analysis.


Auto GCAS – Controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) remains a leading cause of fatalities in aviation, resulting in roughly 100 deaths each year in the United States alone. Although warning systems have virtually eliminated CFIT for large commercial air carriers, the problem still remains for fighter aircraft, helicopters, and general aviation.

The Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System (Auto GCAS) automatically takes control of an aircraft that is in danger of crashing into the ground and flies it to safety. The technology relies on a navigation system to position the aircraft over a digital terrain elevation database, algorithms to determine the potential and imminence of a collision, and an autopilot to avoid the potential collision. The system is designed not only to provide nuisance-free warnings to the pilot but also to take over when a pilot is disoriented or unable to control the aircraft.

Auto GCAS emerged from the longtime collaboration among Armstrong, the Air Force Research Laboratory, Air Force Test Center, Lockheed Martin, and the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness. Beginning in the mid-1980s, the team focused on highly automated flight to realize the benefits of automation, stemming the loss of life due to CFIT. Since its deployment into the USAF’s F-16 fleet in 2014, Auto GCAS saved the lives of eight pilots by 2018. The team went on to integrate the technology into foreign military F-16s as well as the F-35. They also have worked with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to set certification standards for highly autonomous unmanned aircraft.

Lunar Landing Research Vehicles (LLRVs) were created by a predecessor of NASA Dryden to analyze piloting techniques needed to fly and land the Apollo Lunar Module in the Moon’s airless environment. Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong said the mission would not have been successful without the type of simulation that resulted from the LLRVs. (NASA)

The algorithms have been incorporated into an app for tablet/handheld mobile devices that can be used by pilots in the cockpit, enabling significantly safer general aviation. This will enable pilots to have access to this lifesaving safety tool regardless of what type of aircraft they are flying. The system also can be incorporated into electronic flight bags (EFBs) and/or aircraft avionics systems.

The technology has the potential to be applied beyond aviation and could be adapted for use in any vehicle that has to avoid a collision threat including aerospace satellites, automobiles, scientific research vehicles, and marine charting systems.

FOSS – A Fiber Optic Sensing System (FOSS) developed for aeronautics research at Armstrong has the potential to solve a number of technical challenges for industries as diverse as medical, power, beverage, and automotive. In the past, collecting aerodynamic data from research aircraft and transmitting it required infrastructure including miles of wires, harnesses to keep those wires in place, and bulky sensors that added weight and complexity to aircraft systems. FOSS is a simpler, lightweight solution for the system’s electronics that started out as nearly table-sized but soon will fit in a container the size of a box of cookies.

FOSS has the potential to be game-changing in the way flight instrumentation is envisioned. High-speed monitoring and sensing technology are enabled with efficient algorithms for use in determining strain, shape deformation, temperature, liquid level, and operational loads in real time.

NASA’s X-57 Maxwell is the first all-electric X-plane that will undergo as many as three configurations, with the final configuration to feature 14 electric motors and propellers. (NASA)

CISBoomDA – Cockpit Interactive Sonic Boom Display Avionics (CISBoomDA) is a revolutionary software system capable of displaying the location and intensity of shockwaves caused by supersonic aircraft. Integrated into aircraft cockpits or ground-based control rooms, this technology could be used by pilots of future supersonic aircraft to place loud booms in specific locations, minimizing their impact in populated areas. It provides real-time information regarding location and intensity of the airplane’s shockwave, enabling pilots to make the necessary flight adjustments to control the location and intensity of sonic booms.

Prandtl-D – The Preliminary Research Aerodynamic Design to Lower Drag (Prandtl-D) aircraft features a new method for determining the shape of the wing with a twist that could lead to an 11% reduction in drag. The concept may also lead to significantly enhanced controllability that could eliminate the need for a vertical tail and potentially to new aircraft designs. Engineers estimate future aircraft could see more than a 30% increase in fuel economy by using the new methods of wing design and eliminating the weight of the modern aircraft tail and its flight control surfaces.

Work on the Prandtl-D led to a concept for a Mars airplane called PrandtlM, which could collect and transmit valuable information back to Earth. The aircraft would be able to deploy, fly in the Martian atmosphere, glide down, and land. The Prandtl-M, during its flight over Mars, could collect very detailed high-resolution topographic images that could tell scientists about the suitability of potential landing sites.

Industry Partnerships

Innovators at Armstrong craft creative solutions that advance emerging technologies, from concept development and experiment formulation to final testing.

Armstrong’s Center Chief Technologist is responsible for the coordination and tracking of all technology investments across the center. In addition, the Chief Technologist works with Armstrong’s Technology Transfer Office to foster innovative technology partnerships. The aim of these efforts is to continue to expand Armstrong’s capabilities and further the center’s impact on NASA goals and missions as well as the world around us.

For information on Armstrong technologies available for licensing, visit here  or contact Samantha Hull, Technology Transfer Senior Analyst, at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; 661-276-3368.

Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the October, 2019 issue of Tech Briefs Magazine.

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