UAV flies Antarctic skies


An AAI Corporation Aerosonde small unmanned aircraft and air crew recently participated in a six-week University of Colorado exploration of the cold, rough katabatic winds present on the coast of Antarctica.

After extensive observation, University of Colorado scientists can now generate highly detailed, three-dimensional maps to help study the katabatic winds’ relationship to Antarctic sea ice formation, AAI says in a media release to publicise the event.

AAI’s crew flew four Aerosonde aircraft, which logged more than 130 flight hours and flew nearly 7000 miles during their 16 flights.

For this mission, the Aerosonde aircraft were fitted with meteorological instruments to measure pressure, temperature, relative humidity, winds, net radiation, surface temperature and ice thickness.

AAI also integrated satellite communications equipment onto the aircraft to enable beyond-line-of-sight aircraft control.

The durable Aerosonde Mark 4 aircraft flew in temperatures as cold as -38 degrees Celsius, and remained aloft up to 17 straight hours during its mission to Terra Nova Bay, the focus of the project.

This site was chosen because of the particularly strong katabatic winds present there, as well as its wide expanse of open water surrounded by sea ice.
“We never would have accomplished as much as we did without the tireless efforts of AAI’s Aerosonde air crew,” says John Cassano, assistant professor at the University of Colorado’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences and Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences.

“We pushed the envelope on what can be done with unmanned aircraft for meteorological research. Our Aerosonde aircraft had to fly in extreme cold and winds up to 90 miles per hour for extensive lengths of time. Yet we were able to capture the information we had hoped to secure in support of our studies.”

The Aerosonde aircraft has taken part in other, similarly perilous meteorological research missions.

As part of its previous work with NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, an Aerosonde aircraft completed a history-making flight into Hurricane Noel in November 2007.

It was the first hurricane mission in which an unmanned aircraft was able to explore the storm’s eye and the eye wall. The 17-hour, 27-minute flight duration was a record for unmanned aircraft hurricane missions, and the Aerosonde aircraft gathered data from as low as 300 feet above the ocean’s surface.

In 2001, Aerosonde aircraft were utilised to gather atmospheric and environmental data in Barrow, Alaska, in support of University of Colorado/National Science Foundation research on Arctic warming and regional climate change. The aircraft accumulated more than 1000 flight hours over five years during this research mission.
“Unmanned aircraft like our Aerosonde deliver powerful capability in a small, easy-to-use package,” says AAI Vice President of Unmanned Aircraft Systems Steven Reid. “They can accommodate extreme weather conditions, mission durations and other hazards that would be too dangerous for manned aircraft – all while gathering comprehensive, vital data. Our Aerosonde aircraft have now completed such missions near both the North and South Poles. It is incredibly rewarding to take part in research that can help us understand our planet more fully.”

AAI has offered the Aerosonde Mark 4.7, a derivative of the Aerosonde Mark 4 aircraft, as its entry for the joint US Navy and Marine Corps Small Tactical Unmanned Aircraft System (STUAS)/Tier II competition.