Robotic planes to track pollution

Californian researchers have deployed teams of autonomous unmanned aerial vehicles (AUAVs) to track pollution in South Asia. Based on the success of this mission, it's possible that in five years, hundreds of lightweight AUAVs will be tracking pollution everywhere on Earth.

These days, drones are often associated with military surveillance missions. But autonomous unmanned aerial vehicles (AUAVs) can also be used for more peaceful tasks, such as tracking pollution in South Asia. With funds from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Californian researchers have deployed teams of AUAVs near the Maldives, an island chain nation south of India. These drones act as teams, with three robotic planes flying behind, inside and above clouds simultaneously. Based on the success of this mission, it's possible that in five years, hundreds of lightweight AUAVs will be tracking pollution everywhere on Earth.

Let's start with the introduction of this NSF news release.

A research consortium funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and led by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, has successfully sent a fleet of aerial drones through the pollution-filled skies over the Indian Ocean, thereby achieving an important milestone in the tracking of pollutants responsible for dimming Earth's atmosphere.
The instrument-bearing autonomous unmanned aerial vehicles (AUAVs) completed 18 successful data-gathering missions in the vicinity of the Maldives, an island chain nation south of India, said Scripps scientist V. Ramanathan.

Below is a picture of Ramanathan with the lightweight planes carrying the instruments to track what is happening in our atmosphere (Credit: Scripps Institution of Oceanography/UCSD). Here is a link to a larger version.

The AUAVs tracking pollution in the Maldives

During the Maldives AUAV Campaign (MAC), groupings of three aircraft were flown in a vertical formation that allowed their onboard instruments to observe conditions below, inside and above clouds simultaneously.

The AUAVs completed 18 flying missions during March 2006, taking off from an airport on the island of Hanimaadhoo in the Maldives. Below is one of the robotic plane during landing (Credit: Scripps Institution of Oceanography/UCSD).

An AUAV landing in the Maldives

Each AUAV tracked a separate component of brown cloud formation. The lowest, flying beneath the cloud, quantified the input of pollution particles and measured quantities of light that penetrated the clouds.
The aircraft flying through the cloud measured the cloud's response to the introduction of particles. The aircraft flying above the cloud measured the amount of sunlight reflected by the clouds into space and the export of particles out of the clouds.

Here are some more details about these drones.

The "Manta" AUAVs, constructed by Tucson, Ariz. firm Advanced Ceramics Research, Inc. (ACR), represent a feat of miniaturization. Each AUAV bears an instrument package that weighs less than five kilograms (11 pounds). The packages developed by the team include sensors for measuring solar radiation, cloud-drop size and concentrations, particle size and concentrations, turbulence, humidities and temperatures.

Below is a picture of ACR's Manta which can carry a payload of up to 15 pounds at an airspeed of 39 knots during flight missions lasting of up to 5 hours (Credit: ACR). You'll find more details on other ACR web pages about Unmanned Vehicle Systems and the Manta UAV.

The ACR's Manta

And what could be the impact of such a mission?

"Based on MAC's success it is possible that in five years, hundreds of lightweight AUAVs will be documenting how human beings are polluting the planet and hopefully provide an early warning system for potential environmental disasters in the future," said Ramanathan.

Finally, for your viewing pleasure, here is a link to a page from which you'll be able to watch several video clips of these AUAVs in action.

Sources: National Science Foundation news release, April 18, 2006; and various web sites

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