NOAA Provides Forecasts for World’s Largest Balloon Festival using Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS)

Article Provided By: Bruce Baker (ATDD Division Director); Photo by © Bennie Boss / Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta

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The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is an annual hot air balloon festival that takes place in Albuquerque, New Mexico, over the course of nine days in early October. The event attracts over 500 hot air balloons and over 800,000 attendees each year, making it the largest balloon festival in the world. The 2019 Fiesta is scheduled from October 5-13. During this time, the NOAA Air Resources Lab, UAS Program Office, National Weather Service, and Aircraft Operations Center UAS Section are partnering to provide forecasts for the balloon pilots using a small UAS.

Using Drones to Help Improve Weather Forecasts

Article and Figures Provided By: Bruce Baker (ATDD Division Director)

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Small Unmanned Aerial Systems (sUAS), commonly referred to as drones, are becoming widely used for many different applications. One of these applications is to make measurements of the lowest layer of the Earth’s atmosphere in what scientists refer to as the boundary layer. Scientists are now using drones to gather critical information on how temperature, moisture, and wind evolve within the boundary layer under different weather conditions. Doing this helps scientists to better understand the atmosphere, ultimately leading to improvements in weather forecast models used by NOAA’s National Weather Service.

Bathymetric Mapping and Orthoimage Generation using sUAS and SfM, An Approach for Conducting Nearshore Coastal Mapping

Article and Figures Provided By: Tim Battista (NOS/NCCOS/Marine Spatial Ecology Division)

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The use of commercially available unmanned vehicles have become increasingly common in coastal areas. This work was funded by NOAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Program Office (UASPO) through its federal funding opportunity. Our research was designed to support NOAA OCS’s nautical charting needs in shallow (<10 m) waters. NOAA OCS is developing procedures to operate sUAS from hydrographic vessels. The methods described here will be companion to these operational procedures, and together will help move this technological approach from research towards operations at NOAA. In addition working to meet NOAA OCS’s needs, there has been substantial interest in sUAS applications beyond nautical charting from other NOAA offices, federal agencies, state agencies and non-governmental organizations. This interest has ranged widely from mapping and monitoring coastal habitats to surveying marine animals to observing human activities in coastal environments. Efforts are currently underway to build on the research described here, and continue to design and test new applications for commercially available unmanned vehicles at NOAA NCCOS.

Nighttime Fire Observations eXperiment (NightFOX) Update


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Biomass burning produces major impacts on local and regional air quality and potentially plays an interactive role in climate change. A capable small, fixed-wing unmanned aircraft system (sUAS) can serve as an ideal platform for measurements of biomass burning emissions, plume distribution, fire extent and perimeter, and supporting meteorological data, especially at night when manned aircraft typically do not operate. The NOAA UASPO-funded Nighttime Fire Observations eXperiment (NightFOX) project aims to develop and deploy a sUAS observation system utilizing two modular and easily exchangeable payloads. One payload will provide in situ measurements of CO2, CO and fine- and coarse-mode aerosol size distributions in biomass burning plumes for characterization of fire combustion efficiency and emissions. A filter sampler will collect bulk aerosol samples for off-line composition analysis. The second payload will be flown over the fire to make remote sensing measurements of fire perimeter and fire radiative power using visible and short-, mid-, and long-wavelength IR observations. The multi-spectral remote sensing data will be used to provide sub-pixel information for comparison with satellite fire observations, and along with measured meteorological parameters, will be used to inform, test, and improve the WRF-SFIRE fire-atmosphere model.

On 31 July 2019, the NightFOX remote sensing payload onboard a Black Swift Technologies S2 UAS was used to monitor a prescribed burn in Boulder County, CO. The experiment was very successful, producing a fire map and demonstrating the capability and usefulness of the system (see associated figures and video). For the next step we plan to deploy the system to make measurements over real wildfires in the western US in August and September 2019.

This project is funded by the NOAA UAS Program Office, and includes a partnership between NOAA ESRL/CSD and the University of Colorado Boulder.

Operational Evaluation of Planck Aerosystems "Shearwater" Small Unmanned Aircraft System (sUAS) in the Santa Barbara Channel July 29 - 31, 2019


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Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary CINMS) / Collaborative Center for Unmanned Technologies (CCUT) staff supported the field testing of a Planck Aerosystems "Shearwater" sUAS aboard the NOAA Research Vessel Shearwater (Figure: 1) and the salvage vessel Danny C (Figure: 2). in the Santa Barbara Channel July 29 - 31, 2019. The project was funded by the NOAA OAR UAS Program Office. In participation were LTJG Nicole Chappelle from the NOAA OMAO Aircraft Operations Center Co-PI Alan Jaeger from the US Navy and project PI Todd Jacobs of ONMS CCUT.  The goals of the project are to evaluate the Shearwater UAS's capabilities to safely and reliably take off and land autonomously from moving vessels and to be operated in a tethered mode, where it can stay in the air for extended periods. The Shearwater UAS was able to successfully take off and land autonomously in relative wind up to 21 knots and from the R/V Shearwater at speeds up to 18 knots. The tethered mode was also successfully demonstrated, but at lower wind speeds.

The autonomous take-off and landing capability is thought to reduce risk and will require less operator proficiency when operating from boats. The tethered mode may eventually support incidents such as whale disentanglements and could serve as a data or communications relay during oil spills or other emergency operations.

The next phase of the project is to support NMFS and NOS by providing aerial imagery to manta ray tagging teams ~100 miles offshore at the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary from August 5 - 8, 2019.

A third phase of testing and Shearwater UAS operator training is planned for December 16 - 20 to be conducted in concert with the annual whale disentanglement training in Maui, HI, which will be hosted by project co-PI Ed Lyman at the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.

These evaluations will be reviewed by the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries (ONMS),  (CCUT) and OAR UASPO and will be used to determine whether one or more Planck Aerosystems "Shearwater" UAS will be purchased by the agency and transitioned to routine operations.