The majority of research and development in the unmanned aerial vehicle field has focused on fixed-wing and rotor-craft configurations, while lighter-than-air configurations have received less attention. This is due to common challenges facing airships, such as limited payload capacity and lack of rigidity in an airship airframe. The objective of this project is the design, construction and test flight of a small unmanned airship capable of navigating an area autonomously. This objective was inspired by research undertaken at NASA Langley Research Center, during which a small fixed-wing vehicle was developed to fulfill certain mission objectives using commercially available components.
A small, commercially-manufactured blimp kit was chosen as a platform for the unmanned airship. The airship was controlled using two vectored motors for forward propulsion and altitude control, and an aft motor controlling yaw motion. The blimp kit was successfully tested under manual control. The results of the flight test determined that the flight control characteristics of the vehicle were stable and capable of being modelled for autonomy.
Based on these observations, the airship will be modified with a microcontroller to allow for autonomous control. Control regimes will be written for the microcontroller to specify paths for the airship to fly. The airship's ability to fly these flight paths and stay within a designated boundary will be evaluated. Preliminary results of this research demonstrate the feasibility of small autonomous airships, and suggest that the addition of sensors will allow airships to become as useful as other configurations of unmanned aerial vehicles.
Dr. D. Blake Stringer
If space permits, I would like to bring my airship, which is 5.5 ft long. It can be tethered and float above my station.