The Road to Open Air: How Ray20 Prepared for Its First Flight Tests

It’s been an exciting (and exhausting!) few months for the Ray20 team since we announced the launch of our project in June, and we’ve been laser-focused on our goal to build scalable, certifiable and autonomous remote sensing systems that provide high quality and high cadence images to Airbus customers.

The next phase of our project’s development was the implementation of our device onto Acubed’s Flight Test Lab, a Beechcraft Baron 58 test aircraft that allows Acubed projects (primarily Project Wayfinder and ourselves) to test and iterate on their own flight systems. Once our technology was integrated, we were able to successfully complete our first two flight tests - a huge milestone!

The process leading up to flight testing is a significant one, but our team undertook it with speed and grace. There are four phases that go into flight testing - assembly, integration & test (AIT), desktop testing, ground testing and ultimately flight testing.

- Phase 1 - Assembly, Integration & Test: Also known as AIT, this is the initial phase that involves all logistical planning for a successful flight test. During this phase, we collaborated extensively with Project Wayfinder, whose technology inspired the Flight Test Lab, to understand how we could use the aircraft to install and test our technology without disrupting its existing operations. Together, the teams explored different solutions for installation to ensure there were no surprises once the process began.

- Phase 2 - Desktop Testing: Before the device is installed on the aircraft, its technology is honed and perfected by a team of engineers. Our team worked diligently to prepare our device for implementation, and their speed was a key component of achieving flight tests ahead of schedule.

- Phase 3 - Ground Testing: This phase takes place after technology is installed on the aircraft but while the aircraft is still on the ground. It’s typically used to prepare the device for flight, as well as test for different hypothetical scenarios. Initially, we focused on testing the following: the imaging system for automatic capture and storage, the connectivity that enables us to both remotely control the device as well as gather data as it operates, the processing of imagery, over-the-air software updates and more.

- Phase 4 - Flight Testing: Once phases 1-3 are complete, testing takes place to better understand how the device works in-flight.

Our first flight tests were full of learnings. Our greatest success is that our system is functional, operating as designed and able to successfully record almost all data during flight. In addition, a huge accomplishment was the functionality of the over-the-air connectivity. This technology allows us to receive images while the aircraft is still in-flight and makes iteration and testing of different scenarios possible within minutes. Similar systems often do not have this advantage, forcing them to review their findings once already back on the ground. Our flight also marked a first for Acubed, with air-to-ground connectivity established at its highest recorded altitude for near real-time download of aerial GIS imagery.

Fig. 1: Ray20 Edge Device installed in the aft of the Acubed Beechcraft includes imaging system, on board computer, sensing system and power supply (all COTS)

The biggest lesson learned thus far is related to image calibration. The camera used on Ray20’s device has a set of more than 50 parameters for optimal imaging, so fine tuning each for exposure, focus, blur, movement, distance and more is of utmost importance. Capturing these high-resolution images is not as easy as the point-and-click of an iPhone, and we are now working to improve its overall performance.

We’re extremely excited and encouraged by the results from our first two test flights. Our system functioned as designed and allowed us to run complex scenarios successfully, which lies at the heart of our project objectives. As we work towards our next flight test, we’ll run more ground testing and simulations focused on improving our imagery and analytics to near GIS-quality. Our team is being thoughtful in its planning, systematic in its approach and is executing as quickly as possible to bring Ray20 to life. We can’t wait to share the future successes of our next flights.

- Ben Wilson