Unmanned aircraft to scrutinize pollution levels

Unmanned aircraft will be patrolling the skies of Southern California gathering data that will help scientists assess the region’s climate changes and sources of air pollution. 

The California Air Pollution Profiling Study (CAPPS) is being conducted by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and will use the unmanned Manta aircraft to evaluate all manner of pollutants -- including ozone, soot and other particulates from the northwest United States, Canada, east Asia and Mexico which mix with local pollution and influence the region’s air quality and regional climate, the group said.  

The 60lb Advanced Ceramics Research Manta can fly for about 6 hours at about 65MPH.  According to ACR’s Web site the Manta's standard payload includes a daylight or Infrared pan/tilt/zoom camera.  

The aircraft, which began flights in April and will continue through January, profile atmospheric conditions at altitudes ranging between 2,000 and 12,000 feet.  Miniaturized instruments on the aircraft can measure a range of properties and record temperature, humidity and the intensity of light that permeates clouds and masses of smog. Because of Federal Aviation Administration regulations that prohibit unmanned aircraft from flying in public airspace, the flight paths will be limited to military airspace, which is exempted from FAA rules, the group said.  The flights will originate from Edwards Air Force Base near Rosamond, Calif.

The researchers hope to conduct the flights at least once a month or as often as every two weeks. The Scripps team also hopes to gather data on a situational basis such as during wildfires.  

With CAPPS, the Scripps team hopes to determine how much of Southern California's air pollution comes from Asia, Mexico and from regions north of California. Scientists routinely observe aerosol masses traveling across the Pacific Ocean to the West Coast but are still trying to understand the effects of that pollution.

The imported smog is only one of several sources of atmospheric aerosols in Southern California, joining local auto and industrial emissions and smoke from wildfires. Researchers have seen evidence that this air pollution can mix with falling snow and accelerate its melt when sunlight hits and warms the "dirty" snow in mountain watersheds.  

Certainly the CAPPS project is just one in a long line of non-military uses for automated unmanned helicopters and other flying aircraft, whose main roles in the past have been  mostly in the military.  They are now being employed to track everything from traffic congestion to forest fires.  

In January, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced a $3 million, three-year program that to test the use of unmanned aircraft to measure hurricanes, arctic and Antarctic ice changes and other environmental tasks.    

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