EDWARDS, Calif., 20 April 2005. 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), are 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 up to 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 further 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 up to 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," said 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," said Conrad C. Lautenbacher Jr., the NOAA administrator and under secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere.
"This mission is truly historic in that it marks the first time that scientific payloads of this quality and complexity have been flown in a remotely operated aircraft system," noted Thomas J. Cassidy Jr., president and chief executive officer of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems. "Altair has proven its ability to perform long-endurance, high-altitude scientific missions in controlled airspace for NASA, and we look forward to continuing to demonstrate the strength of government agency-industry collaborations by adding NOAA as our new partner."
For more information, see http://uav.noaa.gov/ or www.nasa.gov.