NOAA Unmanned Aircraft Systems

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NOAA Invests $3 Million for Unmanned Aircraft System Testing

Pilotless Craft Gather Data for Hurricane Forecasts, Climate, West Coast Flood Warnings

January 22, 2008

hurricane graphic.

+ High Resolution (Credit: NOAA)

Unmanned aircraft bearing automated sensors may soon help NOAA scientists better predict a hurricane’s intensity and track, how fast Arctic summer ice will melt, and whether soggy Pacific storms will flood West Coast cities. All three efforts are part of NOAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems program. NOAA recently invested $3 million in federal money to explore the use of the crewless vehicles for wide-ranging research designed ultimately to help save lives and property. NOAA officials announced the funding award today at the annual meeting of the American Meteorological Society in New Orleans.

“This technology has the potential to revolutionize our monitoring of the entire Earth,” said Marty Ralph, a research meteorologist at NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colo., and manager of NOAA’s UAS program. “Data gathered by unmanned aircraft can help us understand how humans are affecting the planet and how we might mitigate the impacts of natural disasters resulting from severe weather and climate.”

Starting this summer, unmanned aircraft will take instruments on research flights that are too dangerous or too long for pilots and scientists. NOAA, working with university and industry partners, will lead three test projects:

  • Atlantic and Gulf Hurricanes: Between August 1 and October 31, small unmanned vehicles will fly into the eye of Atlantic and Caribbean hurricanes at low altitudes too risky for crewed aircraft. The data will help experts diagnose maximum wind speeds and storm physics to improve hurricane intensity forecasts. 
  • Arctic Climate Change: Later this year, a larger unmanned aircraft will observe sea ice conditions and track the locations of seal populations as the climate warms. Ice and atmospheric data will help scientists figure out how clouds, soot, and other airborne particles are helping to melt Arctic ice faster than climate models project from greenhouse gases alone.
  • Pacific and West Coast Storms: In spring 2009, both low- and high-altitude unmanned vehicles will fly over the Pacific to study “atmospheric rivers,” long arms of moisture from ocean storms that bring heavy rain and snow to the West Coast. The data could help forecasters warn water resource managers in time to adjust reservoir levels and avoid flooding and will shed light on weather and climate processes that affect water resources across the arid west.

low level uas.

+ High Resolution (Credit: NOAA)

Future missions will help monitor fisheries, track Greenland glaciers, preserve natural resources, and provide firefighters with key wildfire data. Murky plumes of volcanic emissions and urban pollution will also be targets for dirty work by unmanned vehicles.

Unmanned planes can loiter in the sky over a storm or a forest fire or continue nonstop to a distant target area, such as Antarctica. Some can reach any location on Earth in one trip. Solar-powered vehicles can fly for days at a time. Small vehicles launched from ships at sea can vastly multiply a ship’s observation area to gather rare data in remote regions.

NOAA’s cooperative institutes at Mississippi State University and the universities of Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, and Maryland are regional partners in leading the testbeds, along with Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, an agency of the U.S. Commerce Department, is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through the prediction and research of weather and climate-related events and information service delivery for transportation, and by providing environmental stewardship of our nation's coastal and marine resources. Through the emerging Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), NOAA is working with its federal partners, more than 70 countries and the European Commission to develop a global monitoring network that is as integrated as the planet it observes, predicts and protects.

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