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

Arctic scientists test out unmanned aircraft

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Generally, you have to get to the Arctic to study it.

But the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration doesn't have any icebreaking vessels, and the U.S. Coast Guard's icebreaker fleet is aging.

"That's been a big topic in the Arctic research community: how to retain some capability for working in the ice, given the outrageous cost of building new vessels and operating them," said Peter Boveng, polar ecosystems project manager for NOAA's National Marine Mammal Laboratory.

Enter the ScanEagle, an unmanned aircraft.

Boveng's research group plans to use it next spring to collect data on sea ice and ice seals, hundreds of miles offshore in the Bering Sea and Arctic.

Ice seals are poorly understood, but they're important. They're high on the food chain. Seals are a key Alaska Native subsistence species. And an environmental group has petitioned to list ice-using seals as threatened or endangered.

This month, Boveng's research group tested out the Boeing-made aircraft in Puget Sound, Wash., airspace. They launched it from a NOAA boat, the Oscar Dyson.

The craft is 40 pounds and has a 10-foot wingspan, navigates using GPS, travels between 45 and 70 knots, and is loaded with a video camera. It must be flown by licensed pilots.

The idea is that crafts like this one will extend the research capacity of NOAA's non-icebreaking research vessels. The craft can go 20 hours and potentially a couple of hundred miles on its own.

But U.S. regulations, not technology, may limit the ScanEagle's flights to a few dozen miles for the time being. That's because of Federal Aviation Administration concerns that the craft could interfere with civil aviation, Boveng said.

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