Aleksandr Yarovinskiy has a side hustle.
It’s netted him $125,000 so far, which he’s using to build a drone to fly around inside the building he works in.
It sounds like child’s play, but it’s much more than that.
Yarovinskiy, an electronics engineer with the 772nd Test Squadron’s Benefield Anechoic Facility radio frequency measurement team at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., is building an unmanned aircraft system from scratch in his spare time. This drone will have the capability to position a radio receiver or emitter – or both – at virtually any point inside the BAF without first having to wait for hours while test teams reconfigure sections of the BAF by moving equipment and the radar absorbing material that’s an essential part of running successful tests there.
The drone has the potential to fly the BAF’s data capture capabilities to new heights.
If it works as envisioned, it will save time, money and will provide a more complete data set than is currently feasible, Yarovinskiy said.
The purpose of his side hustle is to build the drone and ensure it works as envisioned.
The business of the BAF is testing and integrating avionics systems in a secure, electromagnetically controlled space – no radio waves can enter or exit the hangar. Inside the BAF, test teams use state-of-the-art simulation and stimulation technologies that closely replicate a real combat mission environment so electronic systems can be fully tested without interference from any outside source.
Each successful test in the BAF gives the Air Force a complete, accurate baseline of electronic equipment performance for each weapon system tested.
But testing in the BAF, which is the largest anechoic chamber in the world, has some operational limitations. Much of the time a system is under test can be dominated by setup and calibration. There are also radio frequency coverage limitations over the backbones of large aircraft as well as dynamic antenna transmission restrictions, Yarovinskiy said.
For example, one requirement before running a test in the BAF is to measure the background radio frequency activity inside the facility. As things stand now, each data point measuring that background requires that a receiver and its stand be placed at the desired location and then somewhere between a molehill and a mountain of RAM must be moved and carefully positioned around it to ensure there will be no reflected radio interference.
The RAM is made of carbon-impregnated foam cones – like the foam used in couch cushions – that absorb radio waves and prevent them from bouncing off hard surfaces inside the BAF. The large majority of hard surfaces inside the BAF are covered with RAM during tests.
Capturing another data point somewhere else in the chamber means repositioning the equipment and the RAM.
It’s a lot of labor-intensive time-consuming work.
This whole scenario limits the team’s ability to capture multiple data points to determine the background radio frequency signature of the facility.
It’s So Fly
“But a drone could move throughout the facility without having to reposition other equipment or RAM,” Yarovinskiy said. That means greatly reduced set-up time and a more complete data set. There are also many other possible applications of the drone, he said.
The result will be that more data can be captured more quickly, putting the squadron on point in meeting Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr.’s service-wide challenge to get better faster.
The drone wasn’t Yarovinskiy’s idea. It’s an application the squadron had been considering before he started working there in 2017.
But he took it and ran with it.
One of the first places Yarovinskiy ran – after he’d put together a plan to develop the capability – was to the SparkED Team, the 412th Test Wing’s innovation team, where he secured sufficient funding to see his project to somewhere near the midpoint of completing a working drone.
Big and Beefy
Even though the project has progressed on schedule so far, there’s still a lot of heavy lifting to be done – beginning with the payload.
Yarovinskiy used a quad-copter design, but he beefed up the lifting power by using two rotors on each arm. He is also using a dual-cable tether system, which will deliver consistent optimum power to the rotors, maximizing thrust.
The tether will also transmit data.
The system, which has a diagonal wingspan of nearly 10 feet, will be capable of taking off at a maximum weight of 180 pounds and sustaining unlimited loiter. Right now, the working model weighs about 120 pounds, so it would be able to carry about 60 pounds of additional equipment plus the tether, which weighs about five pounds at a length of 50 feet.
The drone also needed its own positioning system, since GPS is unreliable to the point of uselessness for the precision needed to test in the BAF.
To meet this requirement, Yarovinskiy developed a more accurate positioning system using a laser in a fixed position and attaching two servo motors on a drone mockup, which he built by attaching the necessary electronic hardware to a frame made of small stock lumber.
It was a quick and inexpensive way to assemble a drone when it didn’t need to fly.
He was able to verify the accuracy of the system by walking the apparatus around the BAF and taking measurements. He also developed a flight simulator with real-time data streaming to simulate the drone’s flight position from laser trackers inside a virtual BAF model to test his custom positioning hardware and verify that it works.
The next step will be to get the drone off the ground.
Today the drone is fully functional and is going through a test plan review process for its maiden flight.
“We are in the process of writing a test plan to fly it, hopefully in the beginning of the next calendar year. That will prove its flight worthiness,” Yarovinskiy said. “From there, we’ll fly it first outdoors, then indoors. Then we’ll take it in the chamber, put a payload on it and start doing RF measurement and testing.”
It is estimated that full-scale systems testing, with flights inside the BAF, will take place in the spring of 2023.
Yarovinskiy’s plan for a full-up RF measurement system, which will include three spare vehicles and spare parts could be complete by mid-2026.
The system is being developed with key safety features – a battery backup that can safely land the drone in case of primary power loss and backup software that will guide the drone safely away from the system under test in the event of a failure of the primary control system.
Other improvements will likely come as the system develops.
Innovating the Innovation
While the drone itself is a work in progress, so too is the plan on how to use it.
An important facet of developing innovative new applications of technology is ensuring you understand all the possible applications and use them in the smartest ways possible, said Gerald Van Peteghem, chief engineer over the BAF.
“One of the things I’ve been talking about with Alex is to be thinking and planning how we are going to use this,” Van Peteghem said.
“I’ve asked Alex to take the last three or four tests we’ve run and tell me what, where, when and how he’d use the drone and what would be the gains and savings. So I’m asking him to think that way,” he said.
For his part, Yarovinskiy said he realizes the potential this system has.
“This drone will provide us with an additional capability – something that we don’t have yet,” he said. “There are many ways to use it and we need to plan well to use it most effectively. That’s an important part of developing this system.”
That is exactly how innovation works.
It’s a common mantra from the SparkED Team that new technologies and their best practices of use grow and mature side-by-side. That potential is one of the reasons the team provided funds for this project, said team member Cherie Head.
At this point, Yarovinskiy has met three times and received two rounds of funding with the SparkED Team – the official AFWERX-recognized Spark Cell for Edwards.
One thing both Van Peteghem and Yarovinskiy agree on is the project’s promise.
“This definitely has the potential to save us a lot of time and help us collect data faster and more efficiently, Van Peteghem said.
Yarovinskiy said he is confident that once the drone is up and running – capturing and delivering data as it moves about with the ease of, well, a drone – that it will carry its own weight in the BAF.
Maybe even a little bit extra.