NOAA MISSIONS NOW USE UNMANNED AIRCRAFT SYSTEMS
March 21, 2006 — Most people are familiar with NOAA’s use of unmanned or autonomous underwater vehicles, but NOAA is also interested in routinely using unmanned aircraft systems to explore and gather data in the atmosphere between satellite and ground-based observing systems. UAS-acquired data will supplement data gathered by current “suborbital” airborne platforms — aircraft, sounding rockets, airships and balloons — and complement existing surface-based and space-based observing systems. (Click NOAA image for larger view of Retired Navy Vice Adm. Conrad Lautenbacher, Ph.D., undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA administrator, giving a briefing in front of the Altair unmanned aircraft system, or UAS. Click here for high resolution version, which is a large file. Please credit “NOAA.”)
NOAA has completed several successful UAS demonstration projects and plans more in the near future. “The success of these projects show that the nation’s ability to understand and predict the world we live in is reaching new heights," said retired Navy Vice Adm. Conrad Lautenbacher, Ph.D., undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA administrator. "UAS fill in a critical gap where land- and satellite-based observations sometimes fall short, giving us a view of the planet never before seen. NOAA’s use of UAS represents a huge step forward for Earth sciences that could greatly help NOAA achieve its mission goals to conserve and manage coastal and marine resources to meet our nation's economic, social and environmental needs." (Click NOAA image for larger view of the Altair unmanned aircraft system in flight. Click here for high resolution version, which is a large file. Please credit “NOAA.”)
Areas of NOAA that could benefit from the use of UAS include: climate change, weather, ocean and atmospheric research, water resource management, monitoring and evaluation of important ecosystems (including sanctuaries) and endangered species, shoreline mapping/nautical charting, satellite calibration and verification and surveillance for homeland security, fisheries and marine sanctuaries monitoring and enforcement.
UAS allow NOAA to carry instruments to remote locations that could not otherwise be reached with conventionally piloted aircraft and conduct missions that would otherwise be too dangerous or impractical for manned flight. UAS are often described as the best choice for “dirty, dull, and dangerous missions” — dirty because they can be sent to contaminated areas; dull because they allow for long transit times, opening new dimensions of persistent surveillance and tracking; and dangerous because they can go into hazardous areas with no threat to human life. (Click NOAA image for larger view of image showing how unmanned aircraft are an important contribution to the emerging Global Earth Observing System of Systems. Please credit “NOAA.”)
UAS could also contribute data toward the comprehensive Global Earth Observing System of Systems (GEOSS) being developed by more than 60 countries. "We must move new but proven observing systems into an operational environment and redirect associated resources and research toward exploring new technologies, such as unmanned aerial vehicles, to meet future requirements,” said Lautenbacher.
Aircraft Systems In General
UAS are a
new, developing segment of the aviation industry. Although they have been
widely used by the military and intelligence agencies overseas in recent
years, civilian agencies like NOAA are only beginning to test them. NOAA
and NASA have been mandated by Congress to organize a plan to bring UAS
technology into their future atmospheric science programs. On March 17,
2006, NOAA delivered a report to Congress on the potential use of UAS
to operate in the near space environment for a variety of scientific and
UAS Demonstration Project
UAS Demonstration Project
While the successful use of piloted hurricane hunter aircraft (i.e., NOAA WP-3D Orion and Gulfstream-IV aircraft, as well as the U.S. Air Force Reserve's WC-130H & J aircraft) has been an important tool for understanding hurricanes, detailed observations of the near- sea surface hurricane environment have been elusive because of the severe safety risks associated with these low-level manned missions. The main objective of the Aerosonde project was to address this significant observational shortcoming by using the unique long endurance, low-flying attributes of the unmanned Aerosonde.
Tropical Storm Ophelia provided the perfect test case for using the Aerosonde (in conjunction with NOAA and Air Force hurricane hunter aircraft), since it had just been downgraded from a hurricane and it was within flight range of the Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s eastern shore. The Aerosonde that ventured into Ophelia relayed real time temperature, pressure, humidity and wind speed information through a satellite communications link to ground users. The Aerosonde also carried a downward positioned infrared sensor used to estimate the underlying sea surface temperature. All available data were transmitted in near-real time to the NOAA National Hurricane Center and AOML. This unique data could ultimately be used to help initialize and verify both operational- and research-oriented numerical simulations and lead to improved hurricane intensity and track forecasts. The ten-hour mission marked the first time an UAS had flown into a tropical storm and provided the first detailed observations of a tropical storm’s high wind environment near the sea surface, an area that is normally too dangerous for piloted aircraft to observe directly.
The environment where the atmosphere meets the sea is critically important in hurricanes as it is where the ocean's warm water energy is directly transferred to the atmosphere just above it and where the strongest winds in a hurricane are found. It is also at a level where most citizens live. Observing and ultimately better understanding this region of the storm is crucial to improve forecasts of hurricane intensity and structure. Enhancing this predictive capability would not only save the U.S. economy billions of dollars, but more important, it could save many lives. (Click image for larger view of the Aerosonde unmanned aerial vehicle being released from its transport vehicle on the runway at the NASA Wallops flight Facility, in Wallops Island, Va., to fly into and take measurements of Tropical Storm Ophelia on Sept. 16, 2005. Click here for high resolution version. Photo courtesy of NASA.)
“If we want to improve future forecasts of hurricane intensity change, we will need to get continuous low-level observations near the air-sea interface on a regular basis,” said Joe Cione, NOAA hurricane researcher at AOML and the lead scientist on this project. “But since manned flights near the surface of the ocean are risky — remote unmanned aircraft, such as the Aerosonde, are the only way to go."
Fox UAS Demonstration Project
The Silver Fox is a small, low altitude, short endurance UAS that was developed with Office of Naval Research funding to function primarily as an "expendable over the horizon surveillance tool" that could be launched from ships and/or from land. This UAS can be operated for up to eight hours at altitudes up to 10,000 feet and can achieve air speed ranging from 40 to 63 miles per hour. It carries optical and infrared surveillance camera systems and sends real-time images to a command console on the ground. It is controlled via line of sight communication and has an effective operating range of 20 plus nautical miles. Advanced Ceramics Research in Tucson, Ariz., built the Silver Fox UAS.
The payload for the Silver Fox demonstration project included instruments for observing and counting shallow subsurface features, surface features, living resources and vessels. For example, an electro-optical infrared sensor was used to determine to what extent these operational needs could be met in future UAS flights. The EO/IR system was also used to assess its ability to conduct day and night fisheries surveillance and enforcement, and selected marine mammal surveys.
Non-NOAA UAS Projects Receiving NOAA Support
UAS Demonstration Project
The flights also coordinated with ground-based measurements made at the Maldives Climate Observatory on Hanimaadhoo Island. The objective of this project was to obtain new information about how aerosols and clouds regulate planetary albedo, with particular emphasis on indirect effects such as how anthropogenic aerosols change the albedo of cloudy skies. Veerabhadran Ramanathan, chief scientist with the Center for Clouds, Chemistry, and Climate at Scripps Institution of Oceanography (in La Jolla, Calif.) is leading the project along with a team of scientists and engineers from Scripps and personnel from the Maldives Climate Observatory. Personnel from NASA Dryden Flight Research Center also served as consultants for project planning and logistics. Funding was provided by NOAA, NASA and the National Science Foundation.
NOAA is also interested in participating in a number of non-NOAA UAS projects including the following:
Future of UAS