New hardware built by research engineers at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) is helping NASA retrieve experimental images otherwise lost at sea. The hardware weighs less than two pounds, and serves as a means of locating NASA’s flight imagery recorders that capture valuable image data of decelerators during deployment and deceleration. The small box contains a GPS receiver, satellite communications modem, batteries, and a dual-band antenna. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) sought the ARL’s help in ruggedizing a locator unit to limit the risk of losing the data, especially in the event of a catastrophic failure.

FIRLo is being used by NASA to locate images of experimental flights. (ARL)
Once on the ocean surface, ARL’s Flight Imagery Recorder Locator (FIRLo) unit will turn on and transmit a short-burst data transmission containing location coordinates. The data’s location is imposed on a map. Coordinates can also be emailed to the experimenter. Time between transmissions is programmed prior to launch and can be changed via satellite communication while the locator is floating. Battery status is also available in the transmission. JPL even used an iPhone to locate the FIRLo during a water recovery test last summer. “The FIR was dropped about five miles off the Pacific coast and left to float for about four hours,” Rex Hall, ARL Project Lead Engineer, explained. “The unit was successfully recovered. The prototype FIRLo was also subjected to a violent water surface impact test at JPL’s facility in California.”

ARL’s hardware can survive in excess of 10,000 g’s, is waterproof, and will work when located only 12 inches from the ocean surface and in temperature extremes below 35 °C to 85 °C. The FIR packages, with geo-location hardware, will be demonstrated in the first quarter of fiscal year 2014, with additional launches to follow.

Flight Imagery Recorder Locator (FIRLo)
US Army Research Laboratory
Adelphi, MD

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NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the January, 2014 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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