NOAA's unmanned aircraft program: recent accomplishments and future plans

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Tuesday, 19 January 2010: 1:45 PM
B207 (GWCC)
Robbie E. Hood, NOAA Unmanned Aircraft Systems Program, Silver Spring, MD; and A. E. MacDonald, F. M. Ralph, G. A. Wick, B. Weatherhead, R. F. Rogers, C. W. Landsea, and J. J. Cione

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Program is evaluating the potential benefit that UAS platforms and sensors can provide to the NOAA mission by meeting critical or unique observational requirements that are currently not met by other observing platforms. The NOAA UAS Program has supported successful system testing of conceptual studies focused on observing the meteorological conditions of the lowest air-sea boundary layers of hurricanes, the changing size and volume of meltponds on Greenland glaciers, and identifying the location of ice seal species in the Bering Sea. Next, the NOAA UAS Program will be developing and testing more robust UAS mission concepts that focus on high priority NOAA observational requirements or key science issues. Mission concepts will be research missions that will provide observations that lead to new understanding for improved NOAA products, guidance, or predictions or operational missions that will provide information for improved NOAA products, guidance, or predictions.

The current strategic planning for the UAS Program will include readiness assessments of UAS technologies and transition to operations of successfully demonstrated technologies that could strengthen core competencies to improve high impact weather and water forecasts, manage ocean and coastal resources, support coastal communities, and deliver information for safe transportation. Development and evaluation of UAS mission concepts which could contribute to strategic priorities for marine spatial planning, sustainability of marine fisheries, and the strengthening of Arctic science and services are also elements of the NOAA UAS science roadmap under development.

Examples of mission concepts that will be explored are UAS missions that could:

Improve our ability to provide the seafaring community with current sea ice information at spatial scales not currently available. This information may be used to better forecast short- and long-term sea ice conditions that can be used by mariners, researchers, the oil and gas industry, the commercial fishing industry, and any other parties working or living in the Arctic. This directly supports strengthening core competency "Deliver information for safe, effecient, and environmentally sound transportation".

Improve our ability to study ecosystem phenomena far from shore at a spatial scale that is not currently available and cannot be collected using traditional aircraft without unacceptable tradeoffs in human safety. The ability of LALE UAS to survey below the clouds and very far from shore (or populated areas) provides an opportunity to collect information such as abundance estimates of certain species of seals that occur in very remote locations (good candidates would be ice associated seals, monk seals, Steller sea lions), information on near-surface biota, and ocean color. This directly supports strengthening core competency "Manage ocean and coastal resource with an ecosystem-based approach".

Improve our ability to forecast high impact weather and water events. The potential ability to obtain detailed, spatially extensive atmospheric and surface measurements of quantities (including wind speed, heat and moisture transport) at very low levels within major storms over the ocean such as hurricanes and Pacific winter landfalling storms is not available through any of NOAA's present observing systems. Measurements of these types can contribute significantly to improving forecasts of storm intensity and location of greatest impact. The very long endurance and high altitude capabilities of other platforms (such as the Global Hawk) further provide the potential for near-continuous monitoring of conditions at vertical and spatial resolutions not possible from satellite sensors. Continuous monitoring of storm intensity changes is particularly critical for short-term forecasts of storm impacts. These same measurement capabilities provide new high-quality weather information for safe, efficient, and environmentally sound transportation.

As understanding of UAS increases and access to airspace improves, it is very likely that new applications will be found, and that topics that more fit the definition of "research" today will become NOAA "operations" tomorrow.