A drone detected NASA’s unmanned spacecraft Orion splash down into the Pacific Ocean, 600 miles south-west of San Diego.
Named Ikhana, the drone flew to capture the splash down as Orion completed its first voyage to space – travelling farther than any spacecraft designed for astronauts has done in more than 40 years.
The word Ikhana has native American origins and means intelligent, conscious or aware.
Ikhana’s infra-red cameras detected the capsule and the optical cameras then streamed the video to viewers at NASA and elsewhere.
The spotting by the drone helped the US Navy vessels move in faster to recover the capsule.
The Ikhana is just one of NASA’s many programmes that utilise drones. General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. (GA-ASI) of San Diego, Calif., developed the original Predator A medium-altitude, long-endurance UAS during the mid-1990s for the United States Air Force. Development of the larger, more powerful Predator B was initiated in 2000 by the firm with partial funding from NASA. The agency was interested in the Earth science capabilities of a civil version of the aircraft with a larger payload and high-altitude capability, along with long endurance.
NASA’s MQ-9 Ikhana / Predator B has a wingspan of 66 feet and is 36 feet long. More than 400 pounds of sensors can be carried internally and over 2,000 pounds in external under-wing pods. Ikhana is powered by a Honeywell TPE 331-10T turbo-prop engine and is capable of reaching altitudes above 40,000 feet. Ikhana was the first production Predator B equipped with a digital electronic engine controller developed by Honeywell and GA-ASI that makes the aircraft five to 10 percent more fuel efficient than earlier versions.
In 2013, Ikhana received a major avionics upgrade, bringing the aircraft’s systems to current standards and making the UAS maintainable and sustainable. The Ikhana project also acquired a new 140-by-30-inch generic science pod with a payload capacity of more than 500 pounds. The pod’s internal arrangement is reconfigurable to accommodate a variety of science sensors and instruments.