NOAA, NASA, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. Use Unmanned Aircraft for Environmental Research and Disaster Protection


Dec 05, 2005


The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration successfully completed its first series of missions using a high-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aircraft system recently to support NOAA’s operational and research needs. Over the course of one flight, the Altair® UAS set a number of records, including the longest duration it has flown, the farthest distance from take off to return to the same base, and the farthest total distance.

The flights further demonstrated that the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. Altair could carry an integrated sensor package up to approximately 45,000 feet altitude for an extended period to meet NOAA’s needs. These include oceanic and atmospheric research, climate research, marine sanctuary mapping and enforcement, nautical charting, and fisheries assessment and enforcement. Such a capability allows NOAA to conduct missions deemed “dull, dirty and dangerous,” those that would otherwise be too dangerous or impractical for manned flight.

The missions were conducted in conjunction with NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., and covered a range of scientific topics from atmospheric chemistry to biological census and coastal mapping. The first flights began in April 2005 and the final missions were completed in November. All flights began and ended at Gray Butte Airfield, one of two General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. flight operations facilities in California's Mojave Desert.

“With this successful demonstration, our ability to understand and predict the world we live in is reaching new heights,” said retired Navy Vice Adm. Conrad Lautenbacher, Ph.D., undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA administrator. “UASs fill in a critical gap where land- and satellite-based observations sometimes fall short, giving us a view of the planet never before seen. This milestone is a huge step forward for earth sciences and will greatly help NOAA achieve its mission goals to conserve and manage coastal and marine resources to meet our Nation’s economic, social, and environmental needs.”

The Altair is piloted from a command center at a remote site, which allows for “dull, dirty and dangerous” missions without risk to pilots, scientists and crew. Additionally, routine or long-duration flights are made more affordable by eliminating the need for multiple aircraft or crews required by manned aircraft.

NOAA mounted a sophisticated instrument suite on Altair for the missions. The scientific payload included instruments for measurements of ocean color, atmospheric composition and temperature, and a surface imaging and surveillance system. Composition measurements include ozone and long-lived gases such as halocarbons, sulfur hexafluoride, and nitrous oxide. These are all greenhouse gases that warm the earth by trapping solar energy in the atmosphere.

“NOAA’s scientific objectives have pushed the technology right to the edge and the results are promising,” said Mike Aslaksen, project manager for the Altair mission and chief of the NOAA Ocean Service Remote Sensing Division. “We’ve flown it longer and farther than its typical missions and found great results. UASs can take us places and gather data that has never been possible before.”

During a recent flight, Altair completed an 18.4-hour mission off the West Coast, taking off at about 11:30 a.m. Nov. 14 and landing at 6:00 a.m. Nov. 15. The flight objectives were to collect airborne data for approximately 20 hours with the NOAA science and operational payload. The records for distance were broken during this flight.

NOAA has research requirements in several areas that can be addressed by UAS flights. For example, airborne sampling is required for air quality and ocean studies, measuring the diurnal patterns of biologically produced gases that impact climate change and research in the remote polar regions to address stratospheric ozone depletion.

UASs can have enormous economic benefits in addition to the scientific.

NOAA is congressionally mandated to map the nation's coastal boundaries. The national shoreline provides the baseline for establishing the United States' territorial boundaries and Exclusive Economic Zone, as well as a navigational reference for mariners and a geographic reference for coastal managers and other constituents. The platform is well suited to flying repetitive or dangerous missions where pilot fatigue and/or safety are an issue, such as patrolling the United States' 3.3-million-mile Exclusive Economic Zone for illegal fishing.

NOAA also manages more than 18,000 square miles of water and land as part of its National Marine Sanctuary Program. Patrolling this large an area for illegal fishing and unpermitted activities presents many challenges. A UAS platform could provide extended operational capability allowing specialized and dual-purpose missions. During the test flights, the Altair used a camera system and electro-optical infrared sensor to demonstrate how these operational needs could be met in future UAS flights.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, an agency of the U.S. Commerce Department, is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through the prediction and research of weather and climate-related events and providing environmental stewardship of our nation’s coastal and marine resources. Through the emerging Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), NOAA is working with its federal partners and nearly 60 countries to develop a global Earth observation network that is as integrated as the planet it observes, predicts and protects.

For further information, comments and/or photos of GA-ASI's role the Altair missions, please contact:

Kimberly Kasitz

Public Relations Manager

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc.



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