An EPIC Road Trip

May 13, 2015 in Technology

Jake Vander Ploeg carefully loads a trailer with gear for a 400-mile road trip. “We’ve got a long way to go, so I need to make sure we’ve got everything we need,” Vander Ploeg says.

But Vander Ploeg and his fellow travelers aren’t going camping; they’re packing for a business trip. And the gear that’s packed in the trailer includes high-tech devices such as computers, antennas and launch vehicles – and a 3-foot-long unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV.

Vander Ploeg is a member of a Boeing team that regularly heads to remote sites to test new technologies aboard flying UAVs. In a recent instance, the team tested a small mission processor that would allow the UAVs, or testbeds as they're known, to carry more-advanced software.

Boeing is investigating many uses for UAVs, such as wildfire detection and suppression, search and rescue assistance, environmental data collection, oil rig and pipeline monitoring, precision agriculture and mining, cargo delivery, border security and communications relays – any of the dull, dirty or dangerous tasks that require great endurance, or are difficult or dangerous to attempt with manned systems.

But before any of these capabilities are installed into Boeing products, the technologies that permit these uses must be validated to show they perform as designed.

And that’s why Vander Ploeg and his colleagues on Boeing Research & Technology’s Electronic Prototyping Integration Center team -- known by their acronym of EPIC -- are on the road again. The team builds prototypes and tests them on the UAVs.

“It’s important that our testbeds help Boeing be ready to address the growing demand for unmanned solutions to meet the complex challenges and urgent needs of our customers,” said Mike Abraham, leader of the EPIC team.

A typical test includes flying new software that allows the UAV to perform functions, such as search and track, with minimal operator input.

By Jennifer Hawton