NASA puts wings on unmanned aircraft experiments

NASA today unveiled the first unmanned aircraft system it will use to conduct  high-altitude, long-endurance science research.

The 44-foot long Northrop Grumman Global Hawk weighs nearly 26,000 pounds when fully equipped and can fly 11,000-nautical-mile range at altitudes up to 65,000 feet for more than 30 hours at a time.  According to Northrop the Global Hawk, which has a wingspan of more than 116 feet and sits about 15 feet high, is the only unmanned aircraft to meet the military and the Federal Administration Aviation's airworthiness standards and have approval to fly regular flights within US airspace.

NASA said its is the ability of the Global Hawk to autonomously fly long distances, remain aloft for extended periods of time, and carry large payloads brings a new capability to the science community for measuring, monitoring and observing remote locations of Earth not feasible or practical with piloted aircraft, most other robotic or remotely operated aircraft or space satellites.

NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center will operate the aircraft and said that satellite communication links will provide researchers with direct access to their onboard instrument packages during missions. Researchers will have the ability to monitor instrument function from the ground control station and evaluate selected data in real time.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Department of Energy are also expected to use the NASA Global Hawks for Earth observation research.

NASA's initial use of the aircraft to support Earth science will be the Global Hawk Pacific 2009 program. This campaign will consist of six long-duration missions over the Pacific and Arctic regions in the late spring and early summer of 2009. Twelve scientific instruments integrated into one of the NASA Global Hawk aircraft will collect atmospheric data while flying high through Earth's atmosphere in the upper troposphere and lower stratosphere.

NASA has been heavily involved in the research and development of unmanned aircraft.  Last July  awarded $12 million worth of research contracts to two companies to study how new aircraft, such as  very light jets, super heavy transports, unmanned airplanes, supersonic transports, vertical and short landing and takeoff (V/STOL) aircraft and private space launches, will impact the nation's air traffic control system.

Raytheon and Sensis got $6 million contracts each to simulate, model and develop recommendations for how to best manage the safety, flight characteristics and overall impact these mostly futuristic aircraft will have on United States airspace. Some of these aircraft are of course already having an impact on current air traffic systems.

Congressional watchdogs at the Government Accountability Office last year said a ton of work needs to be done by military, federal and civil aviation groups if the rapidly growing unmanned aircraft community is allowed routine access to public airspace.  In a wide-ranging report on the impact of unmanned aircraft on the country's commercial airspace, today called on Congress to create an overarching body within Federal Aviation Administration to coordinate unmanned aircraft development and integration efforts.

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