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NSF Press Release


NSF PR 01-41 - May 17, 2001

Media contact:

 Peter West, NSF

 (703) 292-8070

Program contacts:

 Simon Stephenson, NSF

 (703) 292-8030


 Judith Curry

 (303) 492-5733

This material is available primarily for archival purposes. Telephone numbers or other contact information may be out of date; please see current contact information at media contacts.

Robotic Aircraft Provide a New Tool to Conduct Arctic Climate Studies

Enlisting a new technological tool to understand the complex interactions of Arctic ice and global climate, researchers supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) are conducting flight tests and gathering scientific data with small, pilot-less planes that can fly under conditions poorly suited for manned aircraft and that have incredible range, due to their fuel efficiency.

A research team from the University of Colorado at Boulder in April completed flight testing of the pilot-less aircraft, called Aerosondes, in Barrow, Alaska. The team will return to Barrow in August to conduct more flight tests and to expand the scientific sampling of variables used to monitor sea ice and atmospheric conditions and to develop and refine climate models.

The Alaska flights were made in conjunction with Aerosonde Ltd. and Aerosonde North America, which manufacture the aircraft.

In April, the team observed flights to test an instrument that measures surface temperatures of sea ice and the temperature variation between newly formed ice and heat coming from open water "leads." The measurements will help determine how the new ice forms and how much heat and moisture are radiating from the leads.

Judith Curry, the project's principal investigator, said that although some engineering refinements still are needed to help the aircraft cope with the extreme low temperatures in the skies over the Arctic, the Aerosondes provide several important advantages that make them a practical alternative to existing planes for conducting Arctic science.

Curry was a principal investigator on the NSF-supported Surface Heat Budget of the Arctic Ocean (SHEBA) project in the late 1990s. She said that it would have been scientifically useful to have much of the information from April's unmanned flights during SHEBA. But she noted that it simply would not have been safe for the much larger aircraft used as part of SHEBA to fly for long distances at the heights the Aerosondes reach.

"During SHEBA we didn't get any measurements over the new ice, it was just too dangerous," she said. The Aerosonde, she added, "has the potential to be a much cheaper and safer alternative to conduct some very important field work in the Arctic."

James Maslanik, also at the University of Colorado and co-principal investigator on the Aerosonde project, noted that even when compared with small civilian aircraft used for science in the Arctic, the Aersonde has the advantages of light weight (about 13.5 kilograms, or 29 pounds), ability to fly more than 1,500 miles on a gallon of fuel, and can remain airborne for 24 hours.

And the Aerosonde, in many cases, is more easily customized to carry scientific instruments. "It takes a lot of work to get a good, research quality dataset with conventional commercial aircraft," Maslanik said.

The Aerosonde also enhances and verifies other measurements such as those taken by satellites because the plane "can fly low under the cloud cover that typically is present in the Arctic," Maslanik noted.

The relatively inexpensive planes, with their long-range and ability to hug the ground, could also be used in environmental monitoring, mapping wildlife migration routes and assisting search-and-rescue operations without risking human crews.

Native people in Alaska's North Slope region were quick to seize on the potential of the planes, Maslanik added.

"One aspect of the project that surprised us was the level of local interest by the Inupiat Elders and others in Barrow," he said. "They're coming up with a lot of ideas that we wouldn't necessarily think of in using these machines. I think they're viewing this as a project that has a payoff for the North Slope communities."


For more information about the Aerosonde in Barrow, see

To read a paper by the Aerosonde research team, see

For more information on NSF-supported Arctic science, see the Office of Polar Programs' Web site:

For more information about NSF's SHEBA project, see the University of Washington's Web site



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