Office of Naval Research leverages Sandia-managed airspace over the Arctic Ocean for unmanned aircraft system flight

July 11, 2024 8:52 am Published by

Platform Aerospace operated their Ultra-Long Endurance Group 3 Unmanned Aircraft System, Vanilla, in the warning area complex known as W-220, last September at the Oliktok Arctic Research Center. With more than eight-days of endurance, Vanilla holds the world record for continuous, un-refueled flight of a combustion engine aircraft. Sandia National Laboratories operates the OARC as a fee-based user facility available to the science, energy and security communities for seasonal or year-round experiments and exercises.

Platform Aerospace ground crews on the runway at Deadhorse, Alaska, loading the 36-foot wingspan Vanilla Unmanned UAS after a successful flight. (Courtesy Platform Aerospace)

The Office of Naval Research first inquired with Mark Ivey, senior engineer, and Andrew Glen, manager of atmospheric sciences, if Sandia could support a UAS flight test for the Navy through the activation of W-220, a warning area complex, designated by the Federal Aviation Administration in 2015. 

“Sandia manages this controlled airspace just for these kinds of experimental activities,” said Ivey. “We were happy to help both the Navy and Platform Aerospace with the logistics necessary to conduct a safe demonstration of this technology’s capabilities.”

Activation of the warning area airspace provides a means for the FAA to alert flight crews of operations incompatible with full size aircraft operations. The area is under the stewardship of the Department of Energy’s Arctic Energy Office; Sandia staff coordinate its activation and usage with the FAA.

The airspace extends northward from just above Oliktok on the North Slope of Alaska to within 550 miles of the North Pole. The warning area offers an airspace free from air traffic and obstructions with a volume of 770 miles by 50 miles, from sea level to an altitude of 10,000 feet. Being situated at high latitudes, the late summer still offers long days — around 13 hours of daylight — for testing, and the maritime climate provides high humidity and cold temperatures to explore UAS performance.

Left a map of Alaska showing the airspace going north into the Arctic Ocean and right, a view of the northern lights
Left: The W-220 Warning Area, starting in the south at the Oliktok Point, is shown in red. RIght: A treat for the overnight flight crew: the Aurora Borealis visible from the Deadhorse Airport. (Courtesy Platform Aerospace)

Platform Aerospace partnered on the flight with the Alaska Center for UAS Integration at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. ACUASI developed procedures, approved by the FAA through a certificate of authorization, to allow a variety of complex UAS flight operations on the North Slope, such as the Vanilla Unmanned flights between the Deadhorse airport and W-220.

Platform Aerospace previously set a world record with Vanilla, staying aloft for more than eight days without refueling; flights on the order of 24 to 39 hours in duration sufficed for this testing. The aircraft leverages an efficient heavy-fuel, such as diesel, Jet-A, or kerosene, internal combustion engine to maintain flight. This design is similar in planform and performance to the highest performance, composite construction full-size sailplanes made in Europe.

Featured image (above): A “tail-cam” shot from Platform Aerospace’s Vanilla UAS flight over the clouds on its return from the Sandia-operated Oliktok Arctic Research Center to Deadhorse, Alaska, after a 39-hour mission. (Courtesy Platform Aerospace)

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