NASA spends $25M for two unmanned aircraft to explore the earth

Unmanned aircraft will have approval to fly regular flights within US airspace

NASA said this week it is snapping up two Global Hawk unmanned aircraft for use in high-altitude, long-duration Earth science missions and is paying Northrop Grumman US$25 million to support the program over the next five years.

The 44-foot long Northrop Grumman Global Hawk weighs nearly 26,000 pounds when fully equipped and can fly 11,000-nautical-mile range and stay aloft for 30-hours. According to Northrop the Global Hawk, which has a wingspan of more than 116 feet and sits about 15 feet high, is the only unmanned aircraft to meet the military and the US Federal Administration Aviation's airworthiness standards and have approval to fly regular flights within US airspace.

NASA said its is the ability of the Global Hawk to autonomously fly long distances, remain aloft for extended periods of time, and carry large payloads brings a new capability to the science community for measuring, monitoring and observing remote locations of Earth not feasible or practical with piloted aircraft, most other robotic or remotely operated aircraft or space satellites.

NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center will operate the aircraft and said that satellite communication links will provide researchers with direct access to their onboard instrument packages during missions. Researchers will have the ability to monitor instrument function from the ground control station and evaluate selected data in real time.

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the US Department of Energy are also expected to learn from the NASA global Hawk for Earth observation research.

NOAA in January announced a US$3 million, three-year program to test the use of unmanned aircraft to measure hurricanes, arctic and Antarctic ice changes and other environmental tasks. The agency said such drone aircraft would be outfitted with special sensors and technology to help NOAA scientists better predict a hurricane's intensity and track, how fast Arctic summer ice will melt, and whether soggy Pacific storms will flood West Coast cities.

NASA meanwhile in July awarded US$12 million worth of research contracts to two companies to study how new aircraft, such as very light jets, super heavy transports, unmanned airplanes, supersonic transports, vertical and short landing and takeoff (V/STOL) aircraft and private space launches, will impact the nation's air traffic control system. Raytheon and Sensis will get US$6 million contracts each to simulate, model and develop recommendations for how to best manage the safety, flight characteristics and overall impact these mostly futuristic aircraft will have on United States airspace. Some of these aircraft are of course already having an impact on current air traffic systems.

Congressional watchdogs at the US Government Accountability Office in May said a ton of work needs to be done by military, federal and civil aviation groups if the rapidly growing unmanned aircraft community is allowed routine access to public airspace.

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