The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has
selected two research proposals to demonstrate the capabilities of
uninhabited, high-altitude aircraft as aerial platforms for Earth
science and commercial applications.

The two missions, announced earlier this week by NASA’s Earth
Science Enterprise in Washington, D.C., both specify use of remotely
operated uninhabited aerial vehicles (UAV) which were matured under
the Environmental Research Aircraft and Sensor Technology (ERAST)
project at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, Calif.

The first proposal, developed by Dr. Stanley Herwitz of Clark
University, Worcester, Mass., would use the Pathfinder-Plus
solar-powered aircraft to aid Hawaiian coffee growers by providing
the growers with spectral (or color) images of their crops. From this
information, the growers will know, down to the day, the best time
for harvesting the beans, bringing the best flavor to consumers.

The second mission, proposed by Richard Blakeslee of NASA’s Marshall
Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala., will utilize the Altus( UAV
for research missions to better understand how lightning forms and
dissipates during thunderstorms.

The two proposals selected for funding were among 45 originally
submitted to NASA’s Office of Earth Science in response to a NASA
Research Announcement last year. The list was pared to 11 finalists
last August, and Dr. Ghassem Asrar, NASA Associate Administrator for
Earth Sciences, made the final selections last week.

As part of NASA’s UAV-based science demonstration program, these
demonstration flights will show the ability of this type of aircraft
to carry Earth-viewing payloads in long-duration missions at
altitudes exceeding the endurance of a pilot in a traditional
aircraft. These capabilities will benefit both U.S. scientific and
commercial objectives, with the Pathfinder-Plus coffee imaging study
demonstrating the commercial application of UAVs, while the Altus
missions will focus on scientific research capabilities of the craft.

The Pathfinder-Plus, a slow-moving solar-electric flying wing
developed by AeroVironment, Inc., of Monrovia, Calif., currently
holds the world’s altitude record for propeller-driven craft of more
than 80,200 feet, set in 1998 during a NASA-sponsored flight near

The Altus, developed by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc.,
of San Diego, Calif., is a civil variant of the firm’s RQ-1A Predator
military reconnaissance UAV operated by the U.S Air Force.

It demonstrated the ability to fly at 55,000 feet altitude for four
hours during a series of test flights over the Edwards Air Force Base
test range in 1999. The Altus has also been the airborne platform for
a series of cloud radiation studies conducted by Sandia National
Laboratory for the Department of Energy in Oklahoma and Hawaii in
recent years.

The coffee harvest researchers will use the Pathfinder-Plus
to loiter for long periods over crop fields during the harvest
season. Coffee is the leading agricultural commodity traded on world
markets, and Hawaiian coffee is some of the finest in the world. A
key to producing excellent coffee is knowing the right time to
harvest the beans. The research team hopes the craft’s unique
capability will provide data the growers can use to select the best
time to harvest the beans.

After flights over the Kauai Coffee Company plantation, the largest
coffee plantation in America, the research team will brief coffee
industry officials on its findings. The demonstration will allow NASA
to provide sound science to a multi-billion dollar American industry,
and is just one potential agricultural-management application using

The Altus missions will be conducted in restricted airspace over
Florida near NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. When a developing storm is
spotted, researchers from the University of Alabama at Huntsville,
with colleagues from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt,
Md., will send the Altus above and around the storm, gauging the
various elements that unleash the fury of storms, while the remote
pilots remain safely on the ground.

Using precision instruments aboard the aircraft, researchers will
take measurements to determine lightning potential of the storms in
the hopes of better understanding how different physical
characteristics in the atmosphere can contribute to development of
lightning. These data will increase
understanding of lightning and storms, while providing federal, state
and local governments new disaster-management information for use in
the areas of severe storms, floods and wild fires.

The two demonstration missions are “both scientifically exciting and
commercially appealing,” Dr. Asrar said. “While validating this new
breed of aircraft we’re also providing sound science with real-world,
practical applications to the American people.”

The two proposals selected for funding met the NASA requirement that
the missions be managed in “Principal Investigator” mode: Each
mission’s lead investigator is responsible for choosing the UAV best
suited for the experiment, and then managing all aspects of the
mission for NASA. NASA has identified approximately $8 million to
fund the two UAV demonstration missions over a period of four years,
with funding split roughly equally between the two proposals.

The missions are part of NASA’s Earth Science Enterprise, a long-term
research effort aimed at understanding how human-induced and natural
changes affect our global environment, while providing practical
societal benefits to America today. The Earth Science Enterprise
provides the sound science needed by policy and economic
decision-makers to assure responsible stewardship of the global

– NASA –


Still photos and video footage of the Pathfinder-Plus and Altus
aircraft are available from the Dryden Public Affairs Office to
support this release. For photo prints or video dubs, please call
(661) 276-2665. Photos are also available on the NASA Dryden Flight
Research Center internet website, URL:
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