NASA designs antenna mounting platform for UAVs

February 13, 2017  - By
CAD model of the antenna system: The antennas will be arranged so that the center of mass is at the center of the tube. Each antenna will be counterbalanced. (NASA)

CAD model of the antenna system: The antennas will be arranged so that the center of mass is at the center of the tube. Each antenna will be counterbalanced. (NASA)

Researchers at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center have designed an antenna-mounting platform to provide users satellite-based tracking functions for unmanned aerial vehicles. The platform integrates multiple capabilities onto one low-cost platform.

In August 2016, NASA signed a license agreement with Mobile Antenna Platform Systems Inc. to commercialize the portable antenna platform.

The platform is built to rotate 60 pounds of antennas, transmitters and receivers and eliminate the need for additional load-balancing hardware. A smaller version can be flown on a plane, greatly extending the telemetry link range without requiring more power from the aircraft.

Auto tracking software uses the target’s GPS location to coordinate and maintain a line-of-sight link as great as what the telemetry system can support.

NASA researchers originally developed the technology for use with research UAVs, which often involve multiple transmitters and receivers on the aircraft and on the ground, with multiple antennas that must be pointed at a single UAV.

NASA-antenna-platform-WThe platform is a middle ground between the low-end tracking platforms that support only one antenna and expensive, high-end options designed for military use.

Besides research, the platform could be used in marine communications, satellite tracking in multiple frequencies and weather balloon tracking, NASA said.

Powered by 120 VAC, the platform moves all of the antennas simultaneously in continuous rotation in azimuth and vertical ±180°, effectively tracking a line-of-sight object up to 20 miles away or further, limited by transmit power and antenna configuration.

It is designed for use with any moving system needing to transmit large quantities of data over one or more RF links. RF signals can include video, command and control, and signals to and from the UAV as well as the research data of interest.

The platform design includes:

  • a horizontal bar with antenna mounts
  • a platform head containing the motors and gears
  • an antenna stand containing electrical slip rings and cables to connect to the radios, motors and external computer
  • a microcontroller interface to drive the motors and receive antenna commands from the software

Its user interface runs on Microsoft Windows and enables the tracking antenna to be interfaced to any ground station that can provide the GPS coordinates of the target being tracked in real time and the GPS coordinates of the tracking antenna.

Platform benefits

According to NASA, the antenna platform offers these benefits:

  • Portability. Lightweight components and a small profile allow the platform to be carried by a single person.
  • Simplicity. Its unique design eliminates the need for additional load-balancing hardware, simplifying setup.
  • Versatility. Up to 58 pounds (26 kg) of multiple antennas from various manufacturers in any combination (including Yagi-Uda, dish/parabolic, omnidirectional, patch/microstrip) under 10 W can be accommodated
  • Low Power Use: Using a smaller motor that is faster than those on other platforms requires less power to achieve continuous rotation.
  • Low Cost: The overall system is estimated to cost less than $5,000.
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