They resemble miniature Reaper drones, but the nimbler Sandstorm’s mission will veer sharply from its weapons-laden cousin as the Department of Energy explores using unmanned aircraft to respond to nuclear emergencies.
Instead of laser-guided missiles and bombs under its wings, the Sandstorm payload consists of radiation detection sensors and optical imagery gear. Named for designer Justin Sands of Henderson-based Unmanned Systems Inc., these sleek machines are more maneuverable, but like Reapers they have retractable nose gear and pneumatic brakes.
The National Nuclear Security Administration wants Sandstorms to augment its fleet of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. Nuclear emergency responders are being trained to fly the drones and assess radioactive plumes under such scenarios as what occurred in the earthquake-triggered reactor meltdowns during the 2011 disaster at Fukushima, Japan.
The logic is akin to not risking pilot lives for reconnaissance missions in a war zone.
“We know there are going to be areas where we don’t want to put our aircraft or our personnel or equipment in harm’s way,” said Karen McCall, Unmanned Aerial Systems program manager for National Security Technologies, prime contractor for Department of Energy’s Nevada Field Office.
“So by having unmanned platforms available we would actually go out and determine a situation before we send in our first responders.”
Sandstorms have a 15-foot wingspan — compared with 66 feet for a Reaper — and can zip through the sky at clips of 40 mph to 110 mph, depending on whether they are powered by lithium-polymer batteries, gasoline or jet fuel for turboprops.
At the Nevada National Security Site, just down the road from Creech Air Force Base and about 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas, pilot Mike Toland recently honed his skills on takeoffs and landings, controlling a Sandstorm with the joystick on a hand-held control box the size of a dictionary.
Much of the “proficiency training” on a calm Monday morning at the site’s Desert Rock Airport was easy to grasp for Toland, who also flies manned aircraft and has flown remote-controlled model airplanes since he was 12 years old.
“When you’re flying an aircraft from the ground looking at it,” he said, “if you want to turn left, you have to move the stick to the right. It’s counter-intuitive. It’s not a natural thing, especially for a manned pilot. You have to relearn how to fly the airplane,” said Toland, a captain pilot for National Security Technologies.
Hovig Yaralian, pilot and flight test engineer Unmanned Systems Inc., said battery-powered Sandstorms can fly up to “a couple thousand feet,” depending on the payload. It weighs 40 pounds without added gear or up to 70 pounds with sensors and optical equipment.
Turboprop Sandstorms have an altitude range up to 10,000 feet with four hours of endurance.
“You can change the duration of the flight. You can kind of loiter about a certain point and have it come back to home if there’s any type of failure,” Yaralian said.
“There’s a lot of redundancy taken into consideration with these aircraft. Whether it be manual control or automated control, it overrides the manual control for safety features,” he added.
Unmanned Systems Inc. was awarded a $240,000 contract to provide National Security Technologies with two Sandstorms. The package includes training, maintenance and operational support.
Unmanned Systems Inc. also has a facility in Montana to train civilian contractor pilots to fly drones for the Air Force.
McCall said the Sandstorm effort is aimed at research and development of the platforms and to train 11 pilots for NSTech’s remote-sensing laboratory teams stationed at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas and Joint Base Andrews in Maryland.
“Having a team of experienced aviators makes us one of a few organizations that this (training) hurdle will be kind of easy for us,” she said.
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