The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is studying a global climatic survey network using a fleet of unmanned air vehicles which will continuously collect data from oceanic airspace around the world.

The multi-stage plan is also likely to involve NASA and the Department of Energy (DoE), which together have held an initial meeting with NOAA to study a possible joint effort. To improve the chances of funding the establishment of a fleet, which could number up to 40 UAVs, NOAA has also raised the possibility of sharing the reconnaissance assets with the Department of Homeland Security.

According to the creator of the concept, director of NOAA's forecasting systems laboratory Dr Alexander MacDonald, it would give unprecedented detailed atmospheric data to researchers investigating climate change. "This is an extraordinarily important issue because it has the whole global energy budget wrapped up in it. If we are talking about spending $100 trillion depending on whether we do carbon dioxide abatement, we need precise data."

The multi-tiered approach could begin over the next three years with a proposal in NOAA's 2007 budget to cover funding for UAVs to survey the air over the Arctic Ocean, north-eastern Pacific and the equator. This effort, dubbed "Pacific Pilot", would be followed by a much larger "Pacific Plus" programme covering pole-to-pole and transpacific observations. "We will try and operate routinely for a couple of years from around 2010. The idea is to develop a stair step of more elaborate uses of UAVs."

The eventual aim, by around 2015-16, is "a global network where we routinely cover the whole international waters around the globe, including the polar regions. We'd have 12 [Northrop Grumman] Global Hawk-type UAVs in the air at all times, out of a total fleet of between 36 and 40 aircraft," says MacDonald. Other UAV types, such as the General Atomics Predator B, are also being considered, although "right now the Global Hawk is the leader".



Source: Flight International