Press Release

NASA’s Newest Unmanned Aircraft Makes Successful First Flight

By SpaceRef Editor
June 9, 2003
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A milestone in the development of high-altitude, long-
endurance, remotely operated aircraft occurred today with
the successful flight of NASA’s Altair. Altair is the first
unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to feature triple-redundant
flight systems and avionics for increased reliability.

The slender-wing aircraft lifted off the runway at General
Atomics Aeronautical Systems’ Inc. (GA-ASI) flight test
facility at El Mirage, Calif. The purpose of the historic
first flight was to evaluate the UAV’s basic airworthiness
and flight controls. After the successful test flight,
Altair glided to a landing on the remote desert runway. The
entire flight was conducted at low altitude within a
relatively short range of the El Mirage flight test

"This is what we’ve been waiting for," said Glenn Hamilton,
Altair project manager at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research
Center (DFRC), Edwards, Calif. "Now we can move forward with
getting UAVs into the national airspace and conducting
research," he said.

Thomas J. Cassidy, president and chief executive officer of
San Diego-based GA-ASI, echoed Hamilton’s comments.
"Altair’s first flight is a culmination of 10 years of
experience in building reliable unmanned aircraft based on a
common design philosophy," Cassidy said. "I am very proud of
our design, manufacturing and flight-readiness teams for
their dedication to a high performance level of excellence."
Built to performance specifications established by NASA’s
Earth Science Enterprise, Altair is an extended-wing version
of the MQ-9 Predator B military UAV being developed under a
partnership with GA-ASI. Altair is one of several UAVs
designed for civil applications that have been developed or
matured under the Environmental Research Aircraft and Sensor
Technology (ERAST) program at DFRC.

After initial airworthiness test flights, Altair will serve
as the avionics test aircraft for the production version of
the MQ-9 before being transferred to NASA. At DFRC, Altair
will first be used to evaluate various new control
communications and collision-avoidance technologies that are
critical to enabling UAVs to fly safely in national

Eventually NASA will use Altair for a variety of
environmental science missions, such as volcanic
observation, forest fire monitoring and atmospheric
sampling. The UAV may be ideal for missions that are often
too dangerous, difficult or lengthy for manned aircraft.
UAVs are uniquely positioned to perform long missions that
have repetitive routines.

Altair is expected to be the first UAV to meet Federal
Aviation Administration requirements to operate from
conventional airports, with piloted aircraft, in the
national airspace. In addition to triple-redundant avionics,
Altair is configured with a fault-tolerant, dual-
architecture flight control system. The UAV will be equipped
with an automated collision-avoidance system and an air
traffic control voice relay. The relay allows air-traffic
controllers to talk to ground-based Altair pilots through
the aircraft.

Command and control of the Altair, as well as research data
gathered by the UAV, will be transmitted through an "over
the horizon" satellite link. The link will also allow
scientists to receive research information as soon as Altair
obtains it.

Altair has been designed to fly continuously for up to 32
hours. It can reach an altitude of approximately 52,000 feet
and has a maximum range of about 4,200 miles. Altair can
carry up to 750 pounds of sensors, radar, communications and
imaging equipment in its forward fuselage. The Altair is 34
feet long, with a wingspan of 86 feet, 22 feet longer than
Predator B. A 700 horsepower, rear-mounted turboprop engine
powers Altair with a three-blade controllable-pitch
propeller. NASA and GA-ASI are jointly funding development
of the Altair and Predator B prototypes under the ERAST
program. GA-ASI built Altair’s predecessor, the Altus 2.

For video footage of the test flight, call 661/276-2665.
Photos are available at:

For information about NASA and aerospace programs on the
Internet, visit:

SpaceRef staff editor.