NOAA 2005-039
Contact: Kent Laborde

NOAA News Releases 2005
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First-of-its-Kind Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Demonstration Flies Today

With a scientific payload developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a remotely operated aircraft mission demonstration took off today in Palmdale, Calif. The flight marks the first time NOAA has funded an unmanned aerial vehicle mission aimed at filling research and operational data gaps in critical areas, such as weather and water, climate and ecosystem monitoring and management. In collaboration with NASA and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, the demonstration of the Altair Unmanned Aerial Vehicle took place at General Atomics’ Gray Butte Flight Operation Facility.

“UAVs have the potential to 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 – and there is an urgency to more effectively address these issues,” said retired Navy Vice Admiral Conrad C. Lautenbacher, Jr., Ph.D., under secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA administrator. “While most Americans associate UAVs with national security, NOAA is working with partners to determine their role in the nation’s environmental security as well.”

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.

With an 86-foot wingspan, the UAV’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 help mitigate natural disasters, such as flash floods and fatal mudslides. Real-time imagery is fed to the UAV’s ground command center from which the aircraft is piloted.

UAVs 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.

A primary goal of the demonstration is to evaluate UAVs 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.

“NASA is glad to see that UAVs are being used for more and more diverse and important operations,” said Terrence Hertz, Deputy Associate Administrator for Technology in the NASA Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate. “We're looking forward to more breakthrough research in areas such as regenerative fuel cells, multi-UAV operations through networking, and routine access to the National Airspace System that will allow UAVs to play an expanding role in Earth Science and other types of missions.”

NASA partnered with General Atomics Aeronautical Systems to build the Altair, which can carry an internal 660-pound payload of sensors and other scientific equipment to 52,000 feet for over 30 hours. Sensors in the UAV’s payload will yield the following benefits:

  • Ocean Color Sensor images will improve fisheries management through better assessment of eco-system health, including improved forecasting and warnings of harmful algal blooms.
  • Ozone Sensor Measurements will help determine ultraviolet vulnerability.
  • Gas Chromatograph Measurements will help scientists estimate greenhouse gases potentially associated with climate change and global warming.
  • Passive Microwave Vertical Sounder will help determine when flash flood warnings must be issued.
  • Digital Camera System will 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 will 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.

In bridging the gap between Earth and space, UAVs are a vital aspect of the emerging Global Earth Observation System of Systems, which is now supported by nearly 60 countries. The 10-year implementation plan for the U.S. Integrated Earth Observation System is an important contributor to the global implementation plan, which will make 21st century technology as integrated as the planet it observes, predicts and protects. 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.

NOAA, an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce, is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through research to better understand atmospheric and climate variability and to manage wisely our nation's coastal and marine resources.

On the Web:

NOAA Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Flight Demonstration Project:

Global Earth Observation System of Systems: