NOAA Unmanned Aircraft Systems

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Unmanned Aircraft Systems in Alaska and the Pacific Region

Picture of UAS in flight

With a scientific payload developed by NOAA, NOAA and NASA successfully completed a series of high altitude, long endurance Altair UAS flights off the coasts of California and Oregon last year.

Totaling 45 flight hours, including an 18-hour 45,000-foot-high flight over the Pacific Ocean, five flights carried instruments for measuring ocean color, temperature, and atmospheric moisture and chemical composition, as well as a surface imaging and surveillance system.

Yesterday I testified before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. The Full Committee hearing focused on Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) in Alaska and the Pacific Region. It was an excellent opportunity to underscore how NOAA is constantly seeking better and more cost-effective strategies to meet our mission goals and responsibilities. This includes evaluating emerging technologies and the roles they could play in our work. NOAA is exploring the use of UAS platforms as one such technology. I am excited about the possibility of using these remotely operated aircraft because they have, for example, the endurance, reliability and payload capacity to provide the capability to improve mapping, charting and other vital environmental forecasting in remote areas, such as the NW Hawaiian Islands and Alaska.

UAS have been called 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. A UAS can potentially help us to “see” weather before it happens, detect toxins before we breathe them, and discover harmful and costly algal blooms before the fish do. Given the data, there is urgency in more effectively addressing these issues. In the U.S., average annual damage from tornadoes, hurricanes and floods averages $11.4 billion. As the most common serious childhood illness, asthma affects over 20 million Americans, about one-quarter of them children. Between 1987 and 2000, the estimated annual average of harmful algal blooms in the U.S. was $75 million.

Last July, NOAA convened an internal UAS Steering Committee and Working Group. This group identified a range of diverse areas within NOAA that could potentially benefit from the use of UAS, including climate and weather; oceanic and atmospheric research; monitoring and evaluating ecosystems and endangered species; mapping and charting; and monitoring fires, marine sanctuaries, and fisheries enforcement. UAS may be able to provide data complementary to the 64-nation-strong Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS). Highly sophisticated sensor platforms can be selected, modified and deployed to meet different missions.

As I emphasized in my testimony, I look ahead to examining how UAS and other emerging technologies can assist us in developing daily weather forecasts, managing the nation’s marine resources, and researching the changes occurring in our climate. Thanks to everyone who is contributing to these important efforts!

Payload of Sensors Used in 2005 Demonstration

(click to enlarge)
diagram showing ocean color sensor diagram showing ozone sensor
diagram showing gas chromatograph diagram showing passive microwave vertical sounder
diagram showing digital camera system diagram showing electro optical/infrared sensor

Conrad C. Lautenbacher, Jr.
Vice Admiral, U.S. Navy (Ret.)
Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA Administrator