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Sea Harrier
The new unmanned robot airplanes have an ability to withstand higher wind and not put a pilot's life at risk, a combination not offered by older models such as this Sea Harrier. (Credit: Fairlight. Some rights reserved.)

Robot aircraft do dirty work of science

In early 2008, scientists launched the expansion of a system of robot airplanes to be used for science.

Scientists say these planes have the potential to revolutionize the way they observe the Earth. They’ll deploy the robot planes for missions they call “dirty, dull, and dangerous.”

That might mean forest fires, Arctic sea ice, or hurricanes. For instance, in 2007, a small, pilotless plane withstood gusts of up to 130 kilometers an hour – that’s about 80 miles an hour as it flew within the eye of Hurricane Noel, collecting data on wind speed and pressure.

Marty Ralph: The aircraft got down into the lower part of the storm, even as low as about 250 feet above the ocean. This is a part of the storm where we typically don’t have very many measurements, partly because it’s way too dangerous for manned aircraft to go in that low. If there’s any small problem, you lose a couple hundred feet altitude and you’re in the water.

That’s Marty Ralph of the Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder. He told Earth & Sky that, in addition to chasing hurricanes, the robot planes will gauge the potential for flooding from Pacific storms and better measure the melt of Arctic ice.

Marty Ralph: We are now exploring a new tool to take care of the planet that we live on.

Our thanks today to NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Marty Ralph on robot airplanes for science
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