A 2015 NASA Aeronautics Mission “Seedling” Proposal is described for a Severe-Environment UAV (SE-UAV) that can perform in-situ measurements in hazardous atmospheric conditions like lightning, volcanic ash and radiation. Specifically, this paper describes the design of a proof-of-concept vehicle and measurement system that can survive lightning attachment during flight operations into thunderstorms. Elements from three NASA centers draw together for the SE-UAV concept. 1) The NASA KSC Genesis UAV was developed in collaboration with the DARPA Nimbus program to measure electric field and X-rays present within thunderstorms. 2) A novel NASA LaRC fiber-optic sensor uses Faraday-effect polarization rotation to measure total lightning electric current on an air vehicle fuselage. 3) NASA AFRC’s state-of-the-art Fiber Optics and Systems Integration Laboratory is envisioned to transition the Faraday system to a compact, light-weight, all-fiber design. The SE-UAV will provide in-flight lightning electric-current return stroke and recoil leader data, and serve as a platform for development of emerging sensors and new missions into hazardous environments. NASA’s Aeronautics and Science Missions are interested in a capability to perform in-situ volcanic plume measurements and long-endurance UAV operations in various weather conditions. (Figure 1 shows an artist concept of a SE-UAV flying near a volcano.) This paper concludes with an overview of the NASA Aeronautics Strategic Vision, Programs, and how a SE-UAV is envisioned to impact them. The SE-UAV concept leverages high-value legacy research products into a new capability for NASA to fly a pathfinder UAV into hazardous conditions, and is presented in the SPIE DSS venue to explore teaming, collaboration and advocacy opportunities outside NASA.
An optical-fiber sensor based on Faraday Effect is developed for measuring total lightning electric current. It has many unique capabilities not possible with traditional current sensors. Designed for aircraft installation, the sensor is lightweight, non-conducting, structure-conforming, and is immune to electromagnetic interference, hysteresis and saturation. It can also be used on windmills, lightning towers, and can help validate lightning detection network measurements. Faraday Effect causes light polarization to rotate when the fiber is exposed to a magnetic field in the direction of light propagation. Thus, the magnetic field strength can be determined from the light polarization change. By forming closed fiber loops and applying Ampere’s law, measuring the total light rotation yields the total current enclosed. The broadband, dual-detector, reflective polarimetric scheme allows measurement of both DC component and AC waveforms with about 60 dB dynamic range. Three sensor systems were built with different sensitivities from different laser wavelengths. Operating at 850nm, the first system uses twisted single-mode fiber and has a 150 A – 150 KA range. The second system operates at 1550nm, uses spun polarization maintaining fiber, and can measure 400 A - 400 KA. Both systems were validated with rocket-triggered lightning measurements and achieved excellent results when compared to a resistive shunt. The third system operates at 1310nm, uses spun polarization maintaining fiber, and can measure approximately 300 A - 300 KA. High current measurements up to 200 KA were demonstrated at a commercial lightning test facility. The system was recently installed on an aircraft and flown near icing weather conditions.