NASA has selected two research projects to demonstrate how high-altitude, unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) can be used to further earth science and commercial activities.

One project will use the AeroVironment Pathfinder-Plus solar-powered aircraft to aid Hawaiian coffee growers. With airborne colour images of their crops, growers will know the best time to harvest the beans. NASA sees numerous agricultural applications for UAVs.

The second mission will utilise the General Atomics Altus UAV to better understand how lightning forms and dissipates during thunderstorms. The experiment is expected to provide a better understanding of how different characteristics in the atmosphere can contribute to lightning development, and researchers hope to gather information to assist in combating severe storms, floods and wild fires.

The Altus missions will be conducted in restricted airspace over Florida near the Kennedy Space Center. The two projects were among 45 originally submitted to NASA and pared down to eleven last August. NASA has earmarked about $8 million to conduct the two UAV demonstrations over the next four years - about a third less than the agency's original scheme.

NASA is also pioneering the use of mission-flexible, long-duration UAVs for operational earth science missions currently being conducted by satellites, manned aircraft and balloons.

Source: Flight International