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The ScanEagle is launched off the flying bridge of the NOAA ship Oscar Dyson.
Photo: Erin Moreland/NOAA

Unmanned Aircraft Launched From NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson

October 29, 2008
Sheela McLean, Public Affairs
(907) 586-7032

Scientists have successfully launched and retrieved an unmanned aircraft from the NOAA ship Oscar Dyson this month, preparing for a planned expedition to study ice seals in the Bering Sea in the spring of 2009.

”We are particularly interested in using this new technology in the Arctic, where we urgently need better data in very remote locations,” said Robyn Angliss, Deputy Director of NOAA’s National Marine Mammal Laboratory, Alaska Fisheries Science Center, and a lead scientist for the Arctic testbed of NOAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Program.

“We have long envisioned unmanned aircraft as the best technology to use to assess the abundance and distribution of ribbon, bearded, spotted, and ringed seals” added Josh London, the project’s chief scientist from NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center. “Ice seals range so broadly and so far from shore that surveying the full range of these populations using traditional manned aircraft is challenging.”

Scientists and technicians ran three test flights October 15 and 16 from the Dyson within restricted airspace over Puget Sound near Seattle. They used a proven maritime unmanned system named “Insight’, built by Insitu, a subsidiary of The Boeing Company. The aircraft is commonly known as ‘ScanEagle’

The ScanEagle, empty, weighs less than 25 pounds. It can carry up to 12 pounds of fuel in addition to a scientifically significant payload for a mission endurance of over 20 hours. At cruise speed, it flies between 45 and 70 knots.

The loaded 40-pound ScanEagle, which has a 10-foot wingspan, was launched from a catapult attached to the top of the Dyson’s bridge. Greg Walker and Don Hampton from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks piloted the ScanEagle after launch. Although the flights were limited to restricted airspace, spotters also searched for intruding aircraft or vessels.

“Teamwork among the commander and crew of the Dyson was critical,” according to Angliss “because the commander and crew have to adjust vessel course and speed for coordinated air vehicle launch and recovery.”

When it returned to the Dyson, the team captured the ScanEagle using a ship’s crane integrated “skyhook” system: line was strung vertically and airframe mounted hooks at the end of the ScanEagle wings clipped to the line as it returned to the Oscar Dyson.

“The University of Alaska selected this aircraft for our experiments because of its proven ability to operate from areas not accessible to typical aircraft that require a runway. These flights in Puget Sound from the Dyson demonstrated that capability,” said Walker.

Commander Mike Hoshlyk, the commanding officer of the Oscar Dyson commented. “The officers and crew of the Dyson were honored to be an integral part of helping NOAA adopt this new technology. This effort required many NOAA offices to work together with the University of Alaska and industry.”

The four species of ice seals—-bearded, spotted, ringed and ribbon—-have been proposed for listing as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. A decision whether or not to propose ribbon seals for listing is due late this year with decisions on the other three seals expected in 2009.


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