NASA Ikhana

Kit:Italeri (MQ-9) + scratch-built
Aircraft:#870, NASA & US Forest Service, California, 2007
NASA Ikhana in 1/72

NASA Ikhana in flight

Ikhana over Lake Arrowhead, CA wildfires in October 2007 (NASA photo).

The Ikhana (Choctaw Native American word for "intelligent, conscious, or aware") is NASA's modified version of the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper (aka "Predator-B") drone. The aircraft was equipped with a special instrument pod to collect wildfire imagery, process the data onboard, and transmit in nearly real time [1]. Ikhana was used in a joint project of NASA and the US Forest Service, and was flown, for example, to monitor forest fires in Western US.

NASA Ikhana in 1/72

NASA Ikhana in 1/72

NASA Ikhana in 1/72

NASA Ikhana in 1/72

Construction notes

This is my first UAV and also my first model where I have used 3D-printed parts. I started the project back in 2012 by preparing some artwork for decals, only to find out that Caracal Decals already had a very nice Reaper sheet with decals also for the Ikhana. I also needed to prepare scale plans for the sensor pod, though, as this is a NASA design and not used in military Reapers; see the section below for a more detailed description.

The Italeri kit of the MQ-9 is a nice representation of this UAV (a re-boxing of the earlier Skunkworks kit). No major corrections were needed, but since the kit represents the standard military variant of the Reaper, fair amount of work was called for to turn it into the Ikhana. Here is what I changed/removed/added:

  1. New nose probe from piano wire (the plastic one just begs to be broken off).
  2. New blade antenna from Evergreen styrene stock.
  3. The top part of the dorsal antenna is too short and needs to be replaced. I made a new one from piano wire.
  4. The kit is also missing the wingtip navigation lights: I cut off the front corners of the wings, superglued a piece of solid transparent plastic in both gaps, and sanded (and polished) them to shape.
  5. There are three holes on both sides of the rear fuselage; they appear as little dots. I added those using a custom-made decal.
  6. The engine air intake opening is missing a vertical vane.
  7. The ventral FLIR turret needs to be removed (left out), and the hole must be filled.
  8. The kit part for the ventral antenna needs a longer shaft, plus a smaller antenna protruding downwards. I made both from Evergreen stock.
  9. The sensor pod must be added (see the description below).

I also added some weight in the nose to make sure the model will stand properly on its landing gear.

Main areas of attention in this conversion.

I painted the model with Mr.Color lacquers, giving the airframe about four coats of semi-gloss white (with patching and sanding in between). The markings came mostly from a sheet by Caracal Decals; some decals I had to make myself. The model was sprayed with Alclad II Gloss Klear Kote followed by a coat of a mixture of Testors Dullcote and Glosscote. I applied practically no weathering, except some exhaust soot between the turbine exhaust and the propeller.
NASA Ikhana in 1/72

Initial construction of the airframe.

NASA Ikhana in 1/72

Note that the FLIR turret has been removed.

NASA Ikhana in 1/72

Airframe complete and ready for base coat

NASA Ikhana in 1/72

First white base coat revealed that some minor patching still needed to be done.

Sensor pod

I prepared scale plans for the sensor pod, first using Adobe Illustrator, and then used those to prepare a 3D model first using Autodesk's 123D and later (after 123D was discontinued) TinkerCAD. I had the part printed by a commercial 3D printing service. The surface quality was not quite what you would expect in a scale model, so some sanding was needed, followed by generous coats of Mr. Surfacer 500, and more sanding. I took the top part of one of the kit's missile pylons and attached it at the top of the pod.

Sensor pod 3D design.

3D-printed sensor pod wth the kit's modified missile pylon.

NASA Ikhana in 1/72

Sensor pod attached.

NASA Ikhana

Sensor pod and many other details clearly visible (NASA photo).

References used

  1. Ikhana - Unmanned Aircraft System Western States Fire Missions (Merlin); Monographs in Aerospace History #44, document SP-2009-4544, NASA 2009.
  2. NASA photo archive of the Ikhana.
  3. My own photos of a USAF Reaper.

Resources for model builders

Our Ikhana scale plans

MQ-9A Reaper

First production MQ-9A Reaper (02-4001, c/n PB 001) of 174th ATKW, NY ANG at Westover AFB in May 2015 (SMA photo). Note the earlier-style shallow fuselage, this was also used in NASA's Altair drone that preceded the Ikhana. Unicraft has a 1/72nd scale kit with this fuselage.

NASA Ikhana

Ikhana being prepared for a mission in July 2008 (NASA photo).

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