NOAA and NASA begin science experiment with UAVs

June 1, 2005
Can unmanned aircraft be used effectively for Earth science experiments?

EDWARDS, Calif.-Can unmanned aircraft be used effectively for Earth science experiments? The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in cooperation with NASA and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. (GA-ASI), is seeking to answer that question during a series of atmospheric and oceanic research flights off the California coastline this spring.

The UAV Flight Demonstration Project, using GA-ASI’s Altair remotely operated unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), is the first time NOAA has funded a UAV Earth science demonstration mission. The experiment is aimed at introducing a new era of science by using a UAV in an operational environment to fill research gaps in critical areas, such as weather and water, climate, and ecosystem monitoring and management.

The Altair, whose development was funded in part by NASA, is carrying a payload of instruments for measuring ocean color, atmospheric composition, and temperature and surface imaging during six flights totaling about 53 hours flight time. The flights, during late April and early May, will be flown at altitudes of as high as 45,000 feet and as long as 20 hours in duration. Three missions will be focused on the Channel Islands area off southern California; the others will extend farther out over the Pacific Ocean.

The Altair, a high-altitude civil derivative of GA-ASI’s Predator B military UAV, was designed for scientific and commercial research missions. It has an 86-foot wingspan, can reach altitudes as high as 52,000 feet, and remain airborne for more than 30 hours.

Objectives of the experiment include evaluating UAVs for future scientific and operational requirements related to NOAA’s oceanic and atmospheric research, climate research, marine sanctuary mapping and enforcement, nautical charting, and fisheries assessment and enforcement.

“NASA is glad to see that UAVs are being used for more and more diverse and important operations,” says Terrence Hertz, deputy associate administrator for technology at NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate. “We’re looking forward to more breakthrough research in areas such as regenerative fuel cells, multi-UAV operations through networking, and routine access to the National Airspace System that will allow UAVs to play an expanding role in Earth Science and other types of missions.”

“UAVs will allow us to see weather before it happens, detect toxins before we breathe them, and discover harmful and costly algal blooms before the fish do-and there is an urgency to more effectively address these issues,” says Conrad C. Lautenbacher Jr., the NOAA administrator and under secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere.

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