"Return to Flight" of NOAA Unmanned Aircraft Systems Demonstration Aircraft

November 7, 2005

NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory (ESRL) and National Ocean Service scientists are again operating instruments on the NOAA Altair Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Demonstration Project off the west coast of the U.S.. The project was interrupted in May 2005 because of communication problems between the UAS and supporting satellites. Two successful test flights were completed in the current series, the latest on Thursday, November 3. These flights are leading up to the two major goals of the mission - a twenty hour duration flight over the Pacific Ocean on November 14, including profiles above the NOAA Atmospheric Baseline Observatory at Trinidad Head, California, and a subsequent six hour flight over the NOAA Channel Islands Marine Sanctuary off Santa Barbara, California. ESRL contributions to this project include ground-based support from the Trinidad Head Observatory and on-board instrumentation for ozone, halocarbons, nitrous oxide, and sulfur hexafluoride from its Global Monitoring Division, integrated with project management from its Global Systems Division and scientific support from its Chemical Sciences Division.


Altair requires a trained pilot to fly the aircraft from a console on the ground with telemetry and flight control signals sent via satellite. Data and graphs from the earlier April and May flights are available at http://uas.noaa.gov/altair/. Data from the UAS Chromatograph for Atmospheric Trace Species (UCATS), for example, show that on April 19, Altair flew through a tropopause fold, where air parcels are exchanged between the stratosphere and troposphere.


Future use of UAS platforms for NOAA operational and scientific research was highlighted in the 2006 Annual Guidance Memorandum. NOAA and NASA have been mandated by Congress to organize a plan to bring the UAS technology into their future atmospheric science programs. UAS platforms could provide cost effective means to enforce regulations over the NOAA Marine Sanctuaries, to conduct long endurance flights for weather, to conduct research over areas that pose significant risks to pilots, to validate satellite measurements, to provide counts of marine mammal populations, and to monitor atmospheric composition and climate.

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