NASA’s ILEOS software could help future HALE systems fly more efficiently


NASA’s “Centurion” HALE aircraft at Edwards Air Force Base, California. ILEOS will help future HALE systems observe everything from volcanic eruptions to greenhouse gases. (Image: NASA)

A new NASA navigation software will help high-altitude aircraft observe Earth systems autonomously, paving the way for novel science missions dedicated to observing everything from atmospheric chemistry to climate change.

Developed by a team of researchers at NASA, the United States Geological Survey (USGS), and the Johns Hopkins Laboratory for Applied Physics, the “Intelligent Long Endurance Observing System” (ILEOS), will calculate custom flight paths for High Altitude, Long Endurance (HALE) systems – unmanned aircraft that observe Earth from the stratosphere.

HALE systems will one day fly for months at a time, and maximizing the value of those airborne science missions requires complex calculations that take into account not only the desired data, but also constraints like sensor type, aircraft variety, and flight conditions.

“We are developing the planning capability,” said Meghan Chandarana, a Computer Engineer at NASA’s Ames Research center and Principal investigator for the project.
“ILEOS is basically leveraging all of the science domain knowledge that we currently have from satellites, aircraft, and whatever other sources to decide where to send these high-altitude vehicles to take the best measurements, for whatever data a scientist might want to take,” Chandarana explained.

ILEOS will lay the foundation for HALE systems to have dynamic targeting capabilities, ensuring instruments fixed to drones, airships, balloons, and other aircraft don’t miss interesting features that may suddenly appear during their flight, such as a severe weather event.

Chandarana explains that her team’s ILEOS software architecture includes three key components: a target generation pipeline, a science observation planner, and an intuitive user interface.

The target generation pipeline and observation planner plot targeted observables for HALE systems to study during their flight, while the user interface allows researchers to provide requirements and manage HALE missions. The system will also establish a footing from which future scientists may coordinate fleets of HALE systems dedicated to the same science mission.

Custom data processing algorithms are the backbone of ILEOS. The core algorithms are well established, but Chandarana and her team will tailor them to fit the unique constraints of HALE-based instruments.

“We’re not inventing a new algorithm, those algorithms exist. It is the inferences we make to give it the constraints, and how we put those algorithms together to create this whole pipeline of planning, essentially, that is novel,” said Chandarana.

By the end of her project, Chandarana and her team aim to demonstrate the scientific utility of ILEOS with simulations featuring a variety of HALE systems and instruments. One of those simulations, Chandarana said, may feature CHAPS-D, another NASA-funded technology dedicated to observing air pollution and greenhouse gases.

“CHAPS-D is one of the up-and-coming sensor payloads that could be utilized for gathering this kind of data that a scientist would want, essentially, so you can think of it as one sensor payload that could be used on a HALE vehicle that ILEOS will then plan the mission for,” she said.

NASA’s Earth Science Technology Office, which funds both ILEOS and CHAPS-D, invests heavily in technologies like ILEOS that enable New Observing Strategies (NOS), novel and innovative strategies for Earth observation that significantly enhance our ability to study planet Earth.

Chandarana emphasizes the value of having a large, diverse team of subject matter experts collaborating on ILEOS together. Coordinating across agencies, specialties, and time zones is no easy feat, but Chandarana and her team did so with distinction.

“It’s not every day that we get a team that has scientists and technologists in the same place. The thought is to integrate both from the beginning, so you’re intentional with the way you’re developing your software,” said Chandarana.

NASA’s Advanced Information Systems Technology (AIST) program, a part of its Earth Science Technology Office, funds ILEOS.

Gage TaylorNASA Earth Science Technology Office