NOAA Completes FVR-55 Operations in Marine Stratocumulus Clouds to Measure Atmospheric Aerosol Properties needed to Improve Climate Model Simulations


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Between August 8th and 18th, 2022, the NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory (PMEL) and the University of Washington Cooperative Institute for Climate, Ocean, and Ecosystem Studies (CICOES) used the L3Harris Fixed Wing Vertical Takeoff and Landing Rotator (FVR-55) uncrewed aerial system (UAS) to measure aerosol and cloud vertical profiles with the NOAA Clear Sky and Cloudy Sky scientific payloads (descriptions provided below). The sensors in the payloads measure aerosol properties relevant to aerosol direct radiative forcing and aerosol - cloud interactions. The mission was supported, in part, by NOAA’s Earth Radiation Budget (ERB) program that was initiated to investigate natural and human activities that might alter the reflectivity of marine boundary clouds. The UAS measurements reported here will provide critical information on the processes that lead to the brightening of marine clouds with a potential cooling of the Earth’s surface.

NOAA Completes FVR-55 Shipboard Launch/Recovery Operations to Measure Atmospheric Aerosols and Fluxes needed to Improve Climate Model Simulations

Article and Figures Provided By: Kenneth Vierra (Science Technology Corporation/UxS Research Transition Office), Patricia Quinn (NOAA/PMEL), Janet Intrieri (NOAA/PSL)

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During the month of March 2022, the NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory (PMEL) and Physical Sciences (PSL) Laboratories used a newly developed uncrewed aircraft system (UAS) to better understand the chemical and physical characteristics of the atmosphere. The suite of sensors used in these demonstrations will improve climate and weather models by providing unique information about the atmosphere.

In partnership with L3Harris Technologies, an American technology company, NOAA has used the newly developed FVR-55 (Fixed Wing Vertical Takeoff and Landing Rotator) UAS to conduct shipboard launch and recovery operations for collecting atmospheric data with the NOAA “Clear Sky,” “Cloudy Sky,” and “miniFlux'' scientific payloads. Development of this innovative technology was initially funded through a NOAA Phase I Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) award in 2016, followed by a Phase II SBIR award and follow-on contract for the continued development of the UAS. Continued development and operations were funded and logistically supported by both the OAR Uncrewed Systems Research Transition Office (UxSRTO) and the OMAO UxS Operations Center (UxSOC). Participants from PMEL, PSL, UxSRTO, UxSOC, and L3Harris performed 11 fully autonomous ship-launching and landing flight operations (14.9 hours of total flight time) off Key West, FL to test and demonstrate the scientific payloads.

NOAA PMEL and L3Harris Complete Cloudy Sky and Clear Sky Payload Integration and Flight Tests

Article Provided By: Kenneth Vierra (Cherokee Nation Strategic Programs/UxS Research Transition Office), Patricia Quinn (NOAA/PMEL), Tim Bates (CICOES University of Washington/PMEL), Derek Coffman (NOAA/PMEL)

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As a continuation of the research, the NOAA Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR) UxS Research Transition Office awarded L3Harris a Phase III follow-on contract for the continued development of the FVR-55. This contract is to support shipboard operations and scientific payload integration on the FVR-55. Flight tests were completed on February 17, 2020 off the M/V Richard L. Becker out of Fort Lauderdale, FL to demonstrate autonomous takeoff and recovery from a moving vessel at-sea.  L3Harris completed all objectives and demonstrated fully autonomous flight using Hybrid Quadrotor (HQ) technology from a moving ship with limited deck space.

On March 22-26, 2021 the NOAA PMEL team joined the L3Harris staff at their facility in Tucson, AZ to complete bench and initial flight testing (Florence, AZ test flight area) of the Cloudy and Clear Sky payloads to verify the payloads functionality. The two payloads measure the aerosol and cloud properties required for the observation of aerosol direct radiative effects (Clear Sky payload) and impacts of aerosols on clouds (Cloudy Sky Payload).

Shipboard Launch and Recovery of Unmanned Aerial Systems and Scientific Payloads


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Measurements of vertical profiles of aerosol properties combined with meteorological parameters have primarily been limited to the use of manned aircraft which are expensive to operate and require extensive ground support. Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) provide a means to obtain these measurements at much lower cost from ships and land based regions not easily accessed by manned aircraft. The lower cost of UAS operations allows for frequent flights as part of long term monitoring or during intensive field experiments. These observations will help to improve air quality forecasts including those related to emissions from forest fires and industrial activities. In addition, these observations will be used to improve and validate aerosol radiative forcing estimates computed with coupled chemical transport and climate models. The cost of repeated UAS flights relative to manned aircraft allows for statistically significant data sets of aerosol properties of the lower atmosphere (surface to 12,000 ft). In addition, these measurements address NOAA’s Long-Term Goals of improved understanding of the changing climate system and its impact on health of people and communities due to improved air quality.

In 2018 working with the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory (PMEL), L3 Latitude was awarded a Phase II NOAA SBIR to ready the HQ-55 for commercial production. This UAS uses a Hybrid Vertical Take Off and Landing (VTOL) – Fixed Wing (FW) technology to allow for autonomous launch and recovery from confined spaces without the need for a runway or catapult. Once launched, the UAS transitions to fixed wing flight with an endurance of up to 10 hours, a ceiling of 12,000 ft, and the ability to carry up to a 15 lb payload. The payload nose cone can be used to house different instrumentation dependent upon the mission. One of these payloads contains instruments for the measurement of total particle number concentration, particle number concentration as a function of particle size, aerosol light absorption coefficient, aerosol optical depth, and aerosol chemical composition. Dr. Patricia Quinn (PMEL) serves as the technical point of contact (TPOC) for the project. Successful test flights with the aerosol payload onboard the HQ-55 took place in April 2019 at the Florence Military Range near Tucson, AZ. An altitude of 7500 ft. MSL (9,300 ft. density altitude) with data from all functioning payload instruments recorded onboard.

With assistance from UAS Program Office, SBIR acceptance testing is planned to be conducted at-sea May 28 to June 1, 2019 with L3 Latitude’s HQ-55 (Figure 1). These first shipboard flights of the HQ-55 will take place on the NOAA RV Ronald H. Brown (Figure 2) during a transit from Woods Hall, MA to Charleston, SC. The goal of this acceptance testing and exercise is to continue to demonstrate the upgraded Hybrid Quadrotor (HQ) technology from a ship with limited deck space and to validate the moving baseline differential GPS and ship landing logic. The UAS will take off from the ship, switch to fixed wing flight, and return and land on the ship. This series of events will be repeated multiple times to build up experience with ship board operations. In addition atmospheric profiles are planned to be completed in the Area of Operation of the ship.

The ultimate goal is to transition “Shipboard Launch and Recovery of Unmanned Aerial Systems with Aerosol Payload Capabilities” from a research platform to a long-term sustained operational capability within NOAA/OAR with NOAA/OMAO providing logistical and asset support.

The next phase of research advancement is to expand on these successes and provide for an operational capability.  As part of this plan, NOAA will acquire the UAS which will be maintained and flown by NOAA’s Aircraft Opera