On March 4-6, a team of nine NOAA scientists and engineers will gather at Avon Park, a U.S. Air Force (USAF) test range north of Sebring, Florida, to conduct first-of-a-kind tests on two small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS). The team consists of personnel from the Atmospheric Turbulence and Diffusion Division (ATDD) of NOAA’s Air Resources Laboratory, NOAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Program Office (UASPO), and NOAA’s Office of Marine and Aviation Operations (OMAO) Aircraft Operations Center (AOC). The two sUASs being tested are recent acquisitions by ATDD. They include a Meteomatics Meteodrone Severe Storms Edition (SSE), which performs a vertical takeoff and landing (Figure 1), and a BlackSwift Technologies S2 fixed-wing aircraft similar in design to an airplane (Figure 2).
Since Avon Park is a USAF bombing range, which NOAA AOC has utilized to test both full-size and drone systems in the past, its airspace is not subject to the same Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) restrictions imposed on the national airspace system. The relaxed limitations will enable the team to fly both sUAS(s) to their respective maximum flight altitudes of approximately 5,000 feet above ground level (AGL). Knowing each aircraft’s upper limit and the point at which the operator will lose visual line of sight are key to performing safer, higher flights in the future. During testing, the team will also employ a ground-based radar system integrated with geospatial software in an attempt to determine its capability to mitigate potential threats to the sUAS(s) by targets within the airspace (e.g. traditional airplanes, other sUAS(s), hot air balloons, birds, etc.). Essentially, this exercise will enable the team to measure the same kind of parameters used by air traffic controllers.
Taking measurements of temperature, relative humidity, wind speed and pressure (collectively known as vertical profiles) with a copter and fixed-wing aircraft at such a high altitude represents a new frontier for atmospheric observations and is currently being done operationally in only a few locations around the globe. Historical data is sparse, so there has always been a large gap in knowing what is happening with the thermodynamics of the atmosphere (e.g. the transformations responsible for weather and climate). Flying the UAS(s) to higher altitudes will enable scientists to design increasingly useful experiments for the boundary layer - the layer of the atmosphere where we live, where weather happens, and where ARL focuses its research.
NOAA’s AOC and UASPO are working toward obtaining Certificates of Authorization (COA) from the FAA to fly up to 10,000 ft. Once COAs are obtained, both of ATDD’s sUAS(s) will be used for vertical profile sampling within the lowest 1 km of the atmosphere. Higher altitude, more frequent measurements will greatly enhance operational weather forecasting by the National Weather Service (NWS), as well as future field intensive studies of the boundary layer. The upcoming field test is paving the way toward eventually having autonomous vertical profiles occurring any time of the day in different locations around the U.S. Currently, there are only about 100 NWS weather forecast offices in the U.S. that perform vertical profiling. They all utilize weather balloons for this twice-daily analysis. ATDD plans to start working with its closest forecast office, in Morristown, Tennessee, to determine how more frequent, more localized vertical profiles help to improved forecasting. ATDD is also continuing to assess new technologies and instrumentation capable of utilization by UAS(s).