Bridging the Gap Between Earth and Space

With a scientific payload developed by NOAA, an Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) soared from a southern California desert on the final segments of a successful demonstration mission. Bridging the gap between Earth and Space, these demonstration flights marked the first time NOAA has funded a UAS mission aimed at filling critical research and operational data gaps in several areas, including climate, weather and water, ecosystem monitoring and management, and coastal mapping. NOAA collaborated with NASA and industry to develop the mission.

UASs offer tremendous potential. The aircraft can be a vital aspect of the emerging Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS). Making integrated Earth observation data readily available for mitigating natural disasters, managing water resources, fostering sustainable development, and addressing a broad range of other high-priority, socio-economic benefit areas will greatly improve the quality of life on our planet.

UAS soars over the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary.

UAS soars over the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary.

UASs will allow us to see weather before it happens, detect toxins before we breathe them, and discover harmful and costly algal blooms before the fish do. There is an urgency to address such issues. In the U.S., annual damage from tornadoes, hurricanes and floods averages $11.4 billion. Asthma affects over 31 million Americans, about one-third of them children, and the rate has jumped 25 percent since 1999. Over the last two decades, outbreaks of Pfiesteria and other harmful algal blooms have caused about $1 billion in economic losses.

UASs 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.

The ALTAIR UAS completed 5 flights for NOAA's demonstration mission. A primary goal of this first demonstration is to evaluate UASs for future scientific and operational requirements related to NOAA's oceanic and atmospheric research, climate research, marine sanctuary mapping and enforcement, nautical charting, and fisheries assessment and enforcement. The ALTAIR can carry an internal 660-pound payload to 52,000 feet for over 30 hours. It further demonstrated the capability to safely integrate into the National Airspace System down to altitudes of 7000 ft.

With an 86-foot wingspan, the ALTAIR's endurance, reliability and payload capacity provide the capability to improve mapping, charting and other vital environmental forecasting in remote areas, such as the NW Hawaiian Islands and Alaska. In California, the aircraft's capabilities will improve forecasts and warnings of natural disasters, such as winter flash floods and related fatal mudslides. Real-time imagery is fed to the aircraft's ground command center, from which the aircraft is piloted.

The payload of sensors included:

  • Ocean Color Sensor images to improve fisheries management through better assessment of eco-system health, including improved forecasting and warnings of harmful algal blooms.
  • Ozone Sensor Measurements to help determine ultraviolet vulnerability.
  • Gas Chromatograph Measurements to help scientists estimate greenhouse gases potentially associated with climate change and global warming.
  • Passive Microwave Vertical Sounder to help determine when flash flood warnings must be issued.
  • Digital Camera System to facilitate shoreline mapping, habitat mapping and ecosystem monitoring, including spill and aquatic disease tracking and assessing land-based discharges and marine mammal distribution and abundance.
  • Electro Optical/Infrared Sensor to provide non-intrusive, maritime surveillance for fishery and marine sanctuary enforcement. Current aerial surveillance has a short survey range and is noisy, dangerous, infrequent and not cost-effective.

NOAA Team: Sandy MacDonald, Mike Aslaksen, Sara Summers, Jim Churnside, Geoff Dutton, Jim Elkins, Dave Fahey, Al Gasiewski, Harris Halverson, Dale Hurst, Vladimir Irisov, Todd Jacobs, Marian Klein, Marty Ralph, David Kraft, Wendy Madsen, Fred Moore, J. David Nance, Paul Neiman, William Odell, Samuel Oltmans, Eric Ray, Ron Richter, Karen Rosenlof, Robert Sears, Jon Sellars, Boba Stankov, Brian Taggart, Jennifer Valdez, Brian Vasel, Ben Waltenberger, Gary Wick, and Jim Wilson.

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