Robot planes to track weather, climate

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration this week 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. 

The agency said the drone aircraft would be outfitted with special sensors and technology to help  NOAA scientists better predict a hurricane’s intensity and track, how fast Arctic summer ice will melt, and whether soggy Pacific storms will flood West Coast cities.

NOAA said unmanned aircraft vehicles (UAV) could operate for sustained periods at lower altitudes and give meteorologists a continuous sampling of data, including wind speed, temperature, pressure and moisture, unlike most manned operations that occur today. Starting this summer, unmanned aircraft will take instruments on research flights that are too dangerous or too long for pilots and scientists.

NOAA, working with university and industry partners, will lead three test projects: 

·          Atlantic and Gulf Hurricanes: Between August 1 and October 31, small unmanned vehicles will fly into the eye of Atlantic and Caribbean hurricanes at low altitudes too risky for crewed aircraft. The data will help experts diagnose maximum wind speeds and storm physics to improve hurricane intensity forecasts.   

·          Arctic Climate Change: Later this year, a larger unmanned aircraft will observe sea ice conditions and track the locations of seal populations as the climate warms. Ice and atmospheric data will help scientists figure out how clouds, soot, and other airborne particles are helping to melt Arctic ice faster than climate models project from greenhouse gases alone.  

·          Pacific and West Coast Storms: In spring 2009, both low- and high-altitude unmanned vehicles will fly over the Pacific to study “atmospheric rivers,” long arms of moisture from ocean storms that bring heavy rain and snow to the West Coast. The data could help forecasters warn water resource managers in time to adjust reservoir levels and avoid flooding and will shed light on weather and climate processes that affect water resources across the arid west.  

Future missions will help monitor fisheries, track Greenland glaciers, preserve natural resources, and provide firefighters with key wildfire data. Murky plumes of volcanic emissions and urban pollution will also be targets for dirty work by unmanned vehicles, the agency said in a release.

UAVs have been growing way beyond their current major role as military flying machines. Automated unmanned helicopters and other flying aircraft, will be used to track everything from traffic congestion to forest fires.

UAVs have also been in the news a lot recently.  Last week the European Defense Agency projected unmanned aircraft vehicles (UAVs) will be able to operate with civilian air traffic within eight years and it has signed a an $8.9 million with a consortium of aerospace companies to develop a detailed roadmap for integrating UAVs into European airspace.  

Layer 8 in a box

Check out these other unmanned aircraft stories:

Europe fostering 8-year plan to mix unmanned aircraft with commercial aviation traffic 

Unmanned aircraft will challenge air traffic control 

Unmanned Flying Fish seaplane makes a splash 

Air Force goes full bore for 1lb unmanned aircraft 

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