NASA exploring potential of small UAVs for Earth studies
Posted: November 2, 2003

NASA is exploring the potential use of uninhabited aerial vehicles (UAV) that look like large radio controlled airplanes to conduct scientific studies of the Earth.

Long endurance UAVs have the potential to fill the gap between satellites and surface networks in the integrated global observing system. That gap is filled by the use of traditional aircraft and limited by the endurance of the onboard pilot. UAVs give researchers a persistent but deployable observing presence, capable of focusing on Earth phenomena that require in-depth, in-situ measurements. UAV data are used in conjunction with the larger global datasets obtained from satellites.

NASA has entered into a three-year cooperative agreement with Aerosonde North America, Inc., Denver. Through the agreement, NASA is seeking to determine the feasibility of conducting Earth science research using small, long endurance UAVs. The Aerosonde remotely controlled aircraft offers scientists the opportunity to conduct long duration missions by flying continuously for more than 30 hours.

The agreement calls for NASA and Aerosonde to establish a UAV facility at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Wallops Flight Facility (WFF), Wallops Island, Va.

"Providing access to the Aerosonde long-endurance UAV technology provides a number of exciting opportunities for the environmental sciences community," said Greg Holland, Aerosonde chief executive officer. "NASA's commitment to flight operations provides an immediate service, and planned developments will ensure the Aerosonde system evolves to suit the future needs and requirements of the science community," he said.

To use UAVs to their full advantage, advanced technologies for small, autonomous sensors, much like satellite sensors, needs to be developed. NASA will hold a workshop with Earth science researchers on Tuesday, November 4 at the University of Maryland Inn and Conference Center, College Park, Md. to discuss the initial focus of sensor development and missions.

The Aerosonde UAV will start flight tests at WFF in November and begin research flights in January 2005.

The agreement also includes teaming between NASA and Aerosonde to support education programs. Middle school to college students will use the Aerosonde UAV for research. Students will design and analyze their own specialized missions and participate in professional science missions.