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NOAA UAS Program Presents for a Second Time at the American Meteorological Society 97th Annual Meeting

NOAA UAS Program’s Sensing Hazards with Operational Unmanned Technology (SHOUT) Project: A Case Study for the End-to-End Utilization of High- and Low-altitude Unmanned Aircraft Systems

The American Meteorological Society 97th Annual Meeting: AMS will hold its annual meeting in Seattle with a theme of “Observations Lead the Way.” Many NOAA scientists will take part in panels on a wide range of topics including the Next Generation Weather Prediction System, NOAA’s Big Data Project, transitioning social science research to weather forecast operations, advancing weather forecast models, and other topics.

The NOAA Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Program Office’s John Walker presented the opportunities to expand and transition into routine operations UAS observational capabilities that stand to benefit the organization’s objectives and society at large. One key project through which much of this work is  being accomplished is in Sensing Hazards with Operational Unmanned Technology (SHOUT), a program dedicated toward assessing the potential operational and cost benefits of unmanned systems to many of NOAA’s operational centers around the country in situations of impending high-impact weather events. 

Within the first two years of SHOUT, high-altitude long-endurance (HALE) UAS was among the most thoroughly investigated types of platforms, building upon the findings from the Hurricane and Severe Storms Sentinel (HS3) research project by utilizing data obtained from the Global Hawk in concert with a variety of remote and in-situ sensing instrumentation payloads deployed over multiple tropical and mid-latitude synoptic scale weather systems in the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean basins. However, as the SHOUT research program has matured, an increase in focus has also been directed toward the use of low-altitude, long-endurance (LALE) and low-altitude, short-endurance (LASE) UAS. 

With many more potential applications slated for investigation, the initial work with these smaller platforms has been geared toward two primary areas of concentration:  1) Obtaining frequent meteorological observations of the atmospheric boundary layer (ABL) to supplement existing surface and upper air data, and 2) Utilization of these same multi-purpose platforms for post-disaster damage assessment. 

In February 2016, a severe weather scenario unfolded in the southern and eastern U.S. in which multiple SHOUT focus areas were tied together, providing an opportunity to demonstrate the end-to-end utilization of both HALE and LASE types of UAS during a high-impact weather event. In the days leading up to the event, the Global Hawk was deployed over targeted regions of a long-wave trough in the data-sparse Eastern Pacific Ocean, providing crucial information to aid large-scale Numerical Weather Prediction (NWP) models with the goal of providing more accurate forecasts downstream, over the U.S. mainland. As the weather system moved across the U.S., a rash of severe thunderstorms and tornadoes developed across several of the southern and eastern states. 

After the storms passed, low-altitude UAS were deployed over rural parts of Virginia to aid in the National Weather Service assessment of storm damage produced by what was subsequently rated as an EF-3 tornado. The aerial imagery provided led to an additional four miles of track being added to the official tornado damage survey, beyond what was captured during the initial ground-based component of this effort. Presented here is an overview of this case, demonstrating the multipurpose nature of unmanned technology and how it may be poised to help us take great strides toward achieving NOAA’s “Weather Ready Nation” strategic goal.