US environment agency invests in additional drone projects and UAS test activity

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is establishing a new Unmanned Systems Operations Program to support the rapidly expanding use of these systems across the agency. The new programme will promote the safe, efficient and economical operation of unmanned systems (UAS) NOAA uses to collect high-quality environmental data for the agency’s science, products and services.

NOAA received USD12.7 million from Congress in Fiscal Year 2020 to improve and expand UAS operations across the agency, including the creation of the new programme — a key goal of NOAA’s recently released Unmanned Systems Strategy. The programme will also help meet the objectives of the Commercial Engagement Through Ocean Technology Act of 2018, which requires NOAA to coordinate research, assess and acquire unmanned marine systems with the US Navy, other federal agencies, industry and academia.

NOAA is partnering with the Navy in 2020 to evaluate new UAS technologies for ocean science applications through the Advanced Naval Technology Exercise (ANTX) program. Now in its fifth year, ANTX enables scientists and engineers to participate in the testing and assessment of experimental technologies that can support missions of both agencies. During the exercise, dozens of new systems are tested and demonstrated to help inform government and private sector investment decisions.

NOAA is also exploring the use of artificial intelligence in combination with UAS to collect and analyse large volumes of scientific data. NOAA recently released a NOAA Artificial Intelligence Strategy in conjunction with the Unmanned Systems Strategy.

NOAA currently uses sensor-equipped UAS for seafloor and habitat mapping, ocean exploration, marine mammal and fishery stock assessments, emergency response, and at-sea observations that improve forecasting of extreme events, such as harmful algal blooms and hypoxia.

While the use of UAS is not new to NOAA — agency scientists have been experimenting with and using unmanned systems for decades — the recent increase in the availability of highly capable UAS has brought a corresponding increase in their innovative use as a force multiplier for many NOAA programs. NOAA’s use of small unmanned aircraft for science missions has increased more than tenfold since 2012.

“Unmanned airborne and maritime systems are transforming how we conduct earth science at NOAA,” said retired Navy Rear Adm. Timothy Gallaudet, Ph.D., deputy NOAA administrator. “Our new Unmanned Systems Operations Program will help us dramatically increase the application and use of these technologies in every NOAA mission area.”

(Image: NOAA)

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