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CIRPAS Platforms, Instrumentation in Demand

Article By: Kenneth A. Stewart

Visitors to the Naval Postgraduate School’s (NPS) Center for Interdisciplinary Remotely-Piloted Aircraft Studies (CIRPAS) are likely to be struck by two things, the odd-looking aircraft and instrumentation that dominate the center’s hangar, and the fact that despite the very serious work that occurs at CIRPAS, its world-class research team does not take itself too seriously.

Within the CIRPAS Hangar, located on the outskirts of Marina, California, are an eclectic group of scientists, technicians, mechanics and pilots. They seem to move from project to project in a never-ending cycle of experiment preparation and execution. Their enthusiasm is more than a little infectious, and their sense of humor and esprit de corps is evidenced by everything from the warm welcome they afford to visitors, to their aircraft taxi vehicle complete with fuzzy dice, racing flames and custom mud flaps.

These days, the center is under increased demand by national and international researchers to conduct reimbursable research, and to provide the platforms and instrumentation packages necessary to conduct advanced unmanned systems, meteorological and oceanographic experimentation.

NPS Research Associate Roy Woods works to maintain and integrate all of the equipment used aboard CIRPAS’ aircraft.

“We are a close knit team, we have to be. We work for many hours on these experiments and to be succesful, we have to have rapport with one another,” said Woods. “Hands down, this is the best crew of people that I have ever worked with.

“I am the buffer between our students and the contractor … I help those requesting research and I keep our guys from getting bogged down with inappropriate requests,” said Woods.

But CIRPAS is not just a place where researchers go to make use of their unique platforms and instrumentation.  Rather, it is an advanced research center in its own right. And CIRPAS Chief Scientist Haflidi H. Jonsson is proud of his center’s academic contributions.

“Everything we do gets published in peer-reviewed articles,” noted Jonsson. “I myself have published between 80-100 papers using this [Twin Otter] aircraft over the last 18 years, and that is just the peer-reviewed work. I can’t keep track of everything else.

“Some of our early students are now faculty themselves and are bringing their own students through here,” added Jonsson.

Illustrative of CIRPAS’ work, the center recently became involved in a major Multi-University Research Initiative (MURI) dubbed the Coupled Air-Sea Processes and EM-Ducting Research (CASPER) program, which seeks to explore atmospheric impact on electromagnetic wave propagation.

 Members of the Naval Postgraduate School’s (NPS) Center for Interdisciplinary Remotely-Piloted Aircraft Studies (CIRPAS) pose for a photo inside their hangar on the outskirts of Marina, California. Pictured, front center, is CIRPAS Chief Scientist Haflidi H. Jonsson, also pictured, from left, are NPS Research Associate Roy Woods, Chief Twin Otter Pilot Marko Jaakkola, Crew Chief Greg Cooper, on top of the aircraft, and Mechanic Dennis Hamaker. CIRPAS operates manned, instrumented research aircraft in support of the military and science communities and provides air vehicle tests, evaluations, and operational demonstrations.

“We will be part of CASPER, conducting aircraft measurements, particularly in the area of measuring the flux rates between the air and sea boundary layers by using our towed apparatus,” said Jonsson.

Jonsson is referring to CIRPAS’ Controlled Towed Vehicle (CTV). The CTV is a torpedo-like measurement device currently under development at CIRPAS. It will be used to measure water vapor and air/sea interactions between 100 feet and sea level that will aid the on-going CASPER experimentation program.

“We will begin [our support of CASPER experimentation] on the East Coast, which poses challenges because the height of the marine boundary layer there is sometimes lower than where the airplane itself can go, that's where the towed apparatus comes in.

“That's also why its so critical to have a meteorologist on the team … We trust [Jonsson’s] predictions over anyone else’s,” said Woods.  

Marko Jaakkola agrees. He is the Chief Pilot of CIRPAS’ Twin Otter aircraft. His 20 years of flight experience are critical to the success of the complex flight missions that CIRPAS is often charged with conducting.

“The low-level flights near Bixby Bridge were my most challenging. We were flying through beautiful scenery, 100 feet above the waves for hours at a time. We fly with a crew of two so we can change pilots every 30 minutes; there is no autopilot that can work at that level,” said Jaakkola.

Woods adds that the Twin Otter is ideal for conducting sensitive atmospheric and marine testing.

“We can take off and land in an area no larger than our hangar, we need an aircraft that can move low and slow, that’s critical to our operations,” said Woods.

CIRPAS’s Twin Otter has been outfitted with a number of specialty experimentation packages both inside and out – devices like aerosol and cloud particle spectrometers, which are important tools for climate scientists.

“The aerosol inlet on the top of the aircraft allows us to grab samples forward, before the airplane interacts with them and then we are able to slow them down so they can be analyzed without being compromised,” explains Jonsson.

“We had a good year for measuring the physical characterization of aerosol and cloud particles. We can measure concentration and size of particles from 10 millimeters in size all the way down to three nanometers, which is just a cluster of molecules” said Jonsson. “We can also measure particle scatter and absorption, the amount of light that is intercepted by particles in the atmosphere.”

According to Jonsson, measurements like these are important because the phenomena they measure can affect detection range of incoming missiles or targeting distance to enemy weaponry.

CIRPAS’ Twin Otter has also been outfield with a satellite communications system that allows it to share its findings in real time with researchers all around the world.

“We have a SATCOM system on the airplane that allows researchers to receive data from the aircraft in real-time without leaving their offices,” said Woods.

CIRPAS’ SATCOM system was put to the test recently while researchers shared live data in a collaborative study with NASA and European Space Agency scientists hunting for methane plumes.

“We were looking for methane plumes from oilfields and landfills in Southern California and transferred the real-time data back to researchers … Often there is just one guy aboard the aircraft with a bunch of equipment, feeding data back to a large group of scientists,” said Jonsson.

Scientists can even chat with the person aboard the aircraft and give directions regarding flight paths and measurements.

Crew Chief Greg Cooper was a skydiving instructor before he started supporting experimentation efforts at CIRPAS. He has been responsible for maintaining the architecture that makes CIRPAS’ work possible for the last nine years.  

“I maintain the aircraft and manage the integration of the payloads. Integration can take a lot of time.  If we are putting on pylons and other instrumentation outside the aircraft, then flight-testing is involved.

“I often have to put together shoeboxes full of wires and instruments and get them to air worthy status,” said Cooper.

But while Cooper and the rest of the CIRPAS team may begin with ‘shoeboxes of wires,’ you would never know it by looking at their world-class facility and the advanced scientific contributions that their center continues to make to NPS, to the study of atmospheric and marine conditions, and to critical current naval operations.  

Posted October 15, 2014

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