Robot airplanes to do dangerous work

Flying without a pilot over hurricanes, forest fires, snow-packed mountains, and more? That’s the flight plan announced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) today at the American Meteorological Society Meeting in New Orleans.

NOAA plans to develop a program of robotic aircraft that will carry automated sensors to do the dirty work of obtaining important scientific data on hard-to-measure phenomena such as hurricanes and storms over the Pacific ocean, sea ice, snow pack, and wildfires.

An investment of $3 M was announced today at the AMS meeting, and expectations are high for the aircraft. “The vision is that unmanned aircraft can be an incredible tool for NOAA,” said Sandy MacDonald, Director of NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory. Sending science crews into hurricanes can be risky, “but an unmanned aircraft can go in so low that they get salt water on the wings,” said MacDonald.

For the next hurricane season, one test project will send unmanned aircraft into the eye of Atlantic and Caribbean hurricanes at low altitudes too risky for crewed aircraft. The robotic planes can hover over hurricanes and follow them for up to a week using solar power, gathering key data such as maximum wind speeds and storm physics to improve hurricane intensity forecasts.

“We really think that this technology can revolutionize how we monitor the Earth system,” said Marty Ralph, a research meteorologist at NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colo., and manager of NOAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems program. Ralph talked of “profound” changes in the Arctic pack ice. “The last few years, it has reduced so dramatically as to be startling,” said Ralph. “And the fact is,” he added, “the best state-of-the-art computer models that we use to project climate forward, they’re not capturing that rate of decrease of the Arctic pack ice.”

January 22, 2008

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