Part Two: Spirit of Dallas

This article is the second part of a multi-part series, Part One: ‘The Path of the Spirit’ can be found at the following link:

Having conducted numerous flight trials at the Dallas Executive Airport, Galaxy Blimps LLC was ready to demonstrate for ESPN that they could provide a new and compelling video feed for their NHRA broadcast. This feed was to be “Goodyear Blimp”-like HD aerial video from points around the track, and was theoretically no different than other airship feed that had been provided by blimps in the past; with three major differences.

Cineflex V14HD

The first being no pilot or camera operator in the blimp, the second being that the airship will be significantly closer to the action, and lastly the cost has been significantly reduced. The “Goodyear”-like airship footage was actually being provided by a 60 foot long unmanned airship remotely piloted from the ground, and the Cineflex HD broadcast quality video turret providing the footage was also being remotely operated from a ground shelter. The unmanned airship will be flying in full compliance with FAA regulations at an altitude ranging from 100ft to 400ft above the NHRA venue.

This setup sounds like something one would expect to hear in future headlines as UAS technologies begin to make their way into domestic markets. This future like scenario would also require the FAA to open the national airspace (NAS) to unmanned aerial systems (UAS) for commercial use, which has been “coming soon” for almost a decade. However, the events being described and the subsequent milestones all happened at the Firebird International Raceway in Phoenix, AZ in early 2008, prior to FAA rules being revised to make these activities illegal.

As the fireworks exploded nearby and the NHRA broadcast kicked off, Galaxy Blimp’s airship was positioned above the track, having been launched from a clearing on the grounds of the raceway. In order to avoid issues with “sense and avoid” and to integrate the blimp into the surrounding airspace as safely as possible, the pilot, Tony White, was remotely piloting the blimp within his line-of-sight at all times. The HD video feed was being wirelessly fed into the booth and the first set of cars came to the starting line.

60 ft Blimp providing coverage of the Houston, TX NHRA event

With an earth shaking roar, the dragsters raced down the track, while the Cineflex turret tracked their every movement, keeping both cars in frame as they streaked across the finish line.  ESPN had indicated to the Galaxy team that it is not their policy to allow brand new video delivery technologies onto the broadcast and that the footage provided would only be fed into the broadcast booth to test integration and feasibility. The Galaxy team decided to be prepared for possible on-air use regardless, by hiring a seasoned camera operator with experience providing Cineflex aerial footage to ESPN in the past from manned helicopters and blimps.

Galaxy Blimps 60ft Unmanned Airship as seen on ESPN2 in 2008 (click pic to see the footage)

After a few races, the Cineflex operator came on Galaxy’s wireless voice communications saying “uuhh…guys, we’re on air…”, it turns out that the integration into the booth was so seamless, that the director did not know it was a test technology and started using it. The airship’s video was used heavily throughout the remainder of the day. Before long the airship was providing “lead-in” footage for going in and out of commercial breaks, and requests were constantly coming in for places to position the airship.

The airship was launched and recovered numerous times throughout the day to refuel and check on systems, as it was being heavily used and the team wanted to ensure their prototype was performing as intended. After the day’s successful broadcast, ESPN decided to just use the blimp as part of the broadcast for the rest of the weekend and even promoted the airship in the broadcast. As this was a trial run, the airship was not carrying banners or signage. The Galaxy pilot was using a radio to communicate with incoming air traffic, and the team had a spotter in place to help identify flight paths. Various helicopters and banner-towing manned aircraft were all operating in and around the venue with no issues seeing and communicating with the blimp and its pilot.

Upon completion of the NHRA weekend, ESPN and Galaxy agreed to do another proof-of-concept run in an upcoming event in Houston, TX. The weather for the Houston NHRA event was forecasted to be overcast and windy with a good probability of showers. This provided Galaxy the opportunity to test just how rugged the system was, as they prepared to setup in a muddy field near the racetrack. This event was coordinated in similar fashion with local FAA offices and once again the airship was successfully deployed and utilized in the NAS with no issues.

The event was similarly intended to prove the viability of providing HD wireless video with an unmanned system on a live broadcast. Additionally, the Galaxy team wanted to conduct a market study of blimp sponsorship, and reached out to GEICO Powersports to conduct an advertising value assessment. The idea was to add signage to the airship, and work in scripted blimp promotions during the broadcast.

Galaxy Blimps Team (from left to right) Andy Holcomb, Ray Resendez, Tony White, and Jason White

Throughout the weekend the weather was constantly changing from clear to overcast and windy with occasional showers. The airship performed flawlessly throughout the event and provided aerial video in winds up to 40knots with a cloud ceiling as low as 400 feet. Eventually the NHRA event was suspended and postponed due to high winds and inclement weather. The airship remained deployed throughout and provided aerial coverage whenever the event was running. During this event the airship was able to remain flight ready despite the heavy winds and rain. While moored, the airship demonstrated excellent survivability and was deployed, maintained, and re-packed for transport home with a crew of only four.

With the successful deployment and testing of the 60 foot prototype airship into the NAS, at multiple events, the Galaxy team focused efforts on the completion of their next generation airship. The design and construction of the 75 foot production line unmanned airship was underway. During this time Tony White was also in communications with the FAAs Advisory Rules Committee (ARC) as a lighter-than-air subject matter expert providing feedback, information, and real world lessons learned from successfully deploying Galaxy’s unmanned systems in the NAS over the span of a decade. The FAA ARC was formed to provide research and recommendations for the FAA in regards to integrating UAS into the NAS.

The years of hard work and devotion spanning over two generations was coming together rapidly. The brothers had proven that not only was the technology viable, but it was also rugged, practical and ready for prime time. The industry was also ready; the only thing missing was a path to true certification for operations in the NAS. However, progress was being made through the promise of the FAA ARC and Galaxy had already accumulated an impressive paper trail of flight authorizations through local FAA field offices.

The spirit that had been planted in the two boys at youth, through the inspiration of their pioneering father, was coming to fruition. Valuable real world experience and lessons learned from the 60 foot prototype were rolled into the much improved 75 foot production airship, which had been dubbed the “Spirit of Dallas”. Galaxy was again looking skyward as flight trials of the newly christened “Spirit of Dallas” were set to begin, and the next step in the evolution of the industry was about to lift off.

Galaxy Blimps 75ft long “Spirit of Dallas” rolling out of the hangar at the Dallas Executive Airport (click image to see a video of the 75ft Airship in action)

Part 3: FAA Regulations Revised and the Race to Quantico!

…to be continued

Part One: The path of the spirit…

The year was 2008, and after almost a decade of escalating research and development two brothers were poised to launch a new platform for delivering high definition broadcast quality imagery utilizing a very old technology. The path to launching this Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) goes back much further than just these two brothers.

It actually started back in the days where the first Remote Control (RC) proportional transmitters began to replace the Dean’s reed systems RC transmitters back in the 60s. A man named Ted White looked to make his hobby a profession by contributing not only his RC piloting skills to manufacturers of these new radios, but to help produce them as well. One of his products was the Galaxy 5 radio. Ted White went on to design aircraft, compete in RC flying competitions and generally exercised his love for RC aircraft by travelling all over the southwest United States wowing crowds at airfields and airshows along the way. It is thought that he was one of the best RC pilots, if not the best pilot of his generation. Regardless, he certainly was to his two boys. Watching their father fly they too became RC pilots and enthusiasts, to nobody’s surprise. They themselves do not recall ever learning how to fly RC aircraft, or that there was ever a time that they didn’t know how to fly them. Tony White, the older of the two, excelled in the craft and fully embraced the sport by mastering every type of RC platform he could get his hands on, while his younger brother Jason White focused on more earthly things such as computers and business development.

Fast forward to the new millennium where the two young men decided they too would make their hobby into their livelihood. Together they started their own company, Galaxy RPV, with a business plan centered on only one thing; make and support Remote Piloted Vehicles (RPVs) for any and every industry that could benefit from them. Having flown target aircraft for the military and participating in a few Government projects as an RC test pilot/SME, Tony realized the DOD market was a very tight niched community with very steep barriers to entry and very well connected players. The path of least resistance was thus the civilian market.

Tony, being a licensed manned aircraft pilot, had a very good understanding and appreciation for the rules in which aircraft must operate while in the US National Airspace (NAS), and the new company went to great lengths to seek and comply with all full sized aircraft regulation wherever applicable and practicable. Working with local branches of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Galaxy created a lengthy paper trail of authorizations and precedents for operating their aircraft over the US NAS.

Galaxy soon found their way into unmanned airships via piloting and designing indoor electric blimps at various sports arenas. While this was initially an avenue to fund some of their more traditional fixed wing and rotary wing outdoor platform initiatives, Galaxy began testing and experimenting with envelopes varying in lengths from 22 feet to 35 feet for outdoor operations. While fixed wing and rotary platforms offered a wide range of options in open air, and were utilized in early operations, Galaxy found the most interest in unmanned airships and saw a path to establishing RC aircraft as reliable and safe platforms in the civilian market.

Out of a warehouse in Fort Worth, Texas, between the years of 2000 and 2006, Galaxy RPV began a period of research and development through practical application. Continuing relations with the local FAA offices Galaxy was able to perform numerous jobs around both the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex and abroad utilizing their line of unmanned airships for both aerial imagery gathering and advertising. Galaxy RPV soon became Galaxy Blimps and the platforms continued to escalate in both size and utility. The 30 foot test envelope was refined into a scalable configuration and was followed by numerous 35 foot unmanned airships for various clients and a 40 foot airship for a university in Japan. All of these Lighter-Than-Air (LTA) Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) were built with full size blimp regulations in mind and flights were cleared and coordinated through relevant local FAA offices.

Eventually, Galaxy was able to get investment and funding for a much greater and deliberate initiative that aimed to provide an LTA UAS platform capable of carrying HD Broadcast Quality FLIR turrets for the broadcasting market. The company moved operations to the Dallas Executive Airport and embarked upon not just the creation of the 60 foot prototype airship, but also to comply and work with the FAA to establish a legal path to market for this platform. By late 2007 the 60ft unmanned airship was complete and subsequent flight trials and turret integration was underway. The airship was flown out of the Dallas Executive Airport with a transponder and voice radio link from the pilot to the tower for communications. Galaxy Blimps was able to successfully conduct a

ll flight trials, demonstrations and turret test flights while integrating into the normal flight pattern at a major municipal airport as a right of way vehicle. Taking lessons learned from this platform Galaxy Blimps set upon the design and construction of the first 75 foot long production model.

In February of 2008 the prototype 60 foot airship was to be utilized for a proof-of-concept demonstration at a National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) event in Phoenix, AZ for both the NHRA and ESPN2. This event was not only to establish the platform as a reliable live television broadcast platform, but was also laying the foundation for a practical operational business model for the 75 foot production airship. The initial plan called for the unmanned airship to simply supply a wireless feed to the broadcast booth as a demonstration, and was not going to be utilized in the actual broadcast. The Cineflex V14 HD Broadcast turret was selected for the demonstration and Galaxy established a launch and recovery zone out of a small lot off the side of the main drag strip. This is where the article began and the moment the path of two generations has led to.

Part 2: Spirit of Dallas

…to be continued