A new sensing and control system for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) allows for semi-autonomous flight. Pilots need not leave the ground to conduct routine monitoring and surveillance quickly and cost-effectively. Such systems are particularly useful during long flight segments or over remote locations, or for scientific applications such as atmospheric monitoring or crop monitoring, which might require long and repeated sampling in a specific pattern. The small, lightweight technology can be quickly adapted to a specific configuration.
Increasing demand for smaller UAVs (e.g., sometimes with wingspans on the order of 6" and weighing less than one pound) generated a need for much smaller flight and sensing equipment. NASA Langley’s new sensing and flight control system for small UAVs includes both an active flight control board and an avionics sensor board. Together, these compare the status of the UAV’s position, heading, and orientation with the preprogrammed data to determine and apply the flight control inputs needed to maintain the desired course.
To satisfy the small form-factor system requirements, microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) are used to realize the various flight control sensing devices. MEMS-based devices are commercially available single-chip devices that lend themselves to easy integration onto a circuit board. The system uses less energy than current systems, allowing solar panels planted on the vehicle to generate the system’s power. While the lightweight technology was designed for smaller UAVs, the sensors could be distributed throughout larger UAVs, depending on the application.