National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Wallops Flight Facility

AeroScience Lab


The 614 AeroScience Lab (ASL) is developing integrated airborne instrumentation and platform systems to augment current measurement capabilities with small, uninhabited aerial vehicles (UAVs) for both remote sensing and in-situ measurements. The ultimate scientific aim of this work is to provide tools for micro-scale atmospheric research, including measurements of temperature, water vapor, three-dimensional winds, turbulence, cloud properties, and precipitation. Additionally, we are developing more generalized platforms for larger instrument systems, with particular emphasis on spectrometry.

Partnerships with industry, other government organizations, and academia are key, as our role is the development and testing of techniques and prototype systems. Ultimately, technology commercialization by companies such as BAI Aerosystems Inc. (Easton MD) will enable production leading to routine global deployment.

Present Activities (see Table of Projects):

Small UAVs offer the Earth science community a unique and cost effective tool for a variety of measurements. Specifically, our platform systems are typically tailored for low speed to enable high spatial resolution. Environmental cleanliness is also a specialty, as electric propulsion is used extensively for atmospheric measurement systems.

To date, we have demonstrated the capability to obtain measurement profiles of the boundary layer using the Xaposoarus and Profiler systems. Continued development is aimed at atmospheric measurement systems capable of reaching 10 km and above. This capability, manifested in our balloon-launched Aeroid platforms, is a major objective. Using this type of low cost probe, a number of measurements may be economically and safely accomplished such as tropospheric profiles, cloud properties and precipitation.

Low altitude measurements, such as those within the boundary layer, may be conducted with the simple to operate, hand-launched Aeros family of vehicle systems. This type of platform can be readily used for small imaging and spectrometry systems, as well as in-situ sensors. Two prototypes are being engineered and fabricated by the Star Aircraft Works (SAW, Silver Spring MD) to our specifications. Another industry partner, QEI Technologies Inc. (Denver CO), is developing miniaturized ozone, carbon-monoxide, and wind sensors that will be compatible with this type of platform. A variety of civilian applications are envisioned, notably urban and industrial environmental monitoring.

To address the more generic requirement of larger sensor systems of up to 15 Kg, the Evolved Science Platform (ESP) project was initiated. Using a leased DoD-type UAV, the BAI Aerosystems Inc. Tern, a series of flight experiments was recently conducted over Wallops Island. Two instruments were successfully integrated and flown: the ~1.5 Kg NASA/GSFC/972 Micro-Spectrometer (Hoge, Yungel, Swift) and the ~10 Kg NASA/GSFC/935 Hyperspectral Imager (Coronado, Lunsford, Lawson). This project is intended to be a multiphase effort, ultimately leading to UAV systems tailored to the Earth science research community, and operated by both government and commercial organizations. Significant work will be required to accomplish this capability, specifically: sensor accommodations, systems reliability, operations in public airspace, and over-the-horizon communication and control. An ultimate goal of this effort is to reach the Gulfstream and return, carrying the Micro-Spectrometer.

Another step towards conducting measurements at distances of up to 50 km, is the creation of the MagPlane in support of the NASA/GSFC/691 (Wasilewski, et al) Iturralde Crater Expedition to Bolivia scheduled for this summer. Two commercially available hobby-type vehicles, integrated with sensitive magnetometers (696/Acuna), and satellite based data systems (935/Coronado, et al), are planned for deployment to map the magnetic field of the suspected meteorite crater. The role of the 972/AeroScience Lab has been to define and test vehicle systems, including a unique and efficient powerplant required for mission durations of three hours or more.

It is envisioned that educational outreach may also be enhanced by providing flight opportunities for student developed payloads. Recent work with the University of Maryland Eastern Shore (UMES) has pioneered this concept with engineering, technology, and science students, using a tethered blimp platform. To date, the Undergraduate Multidisciplinary Earth Science – Airborne Instrumentation Research (UMES-AIR) project, has produced two student designed and fabricated payload systems, with a third underway. A major accomplishment was a flight over Wallops Island, to an altitude of ~0.75 Km, complete with formal documentation, presentations, reviews, and procedures associated with typical NASA/GSFC/WFF flight projects.

Tethered blimp systems are also used by the Meteorological Operations group to obtain weekly atmospheric profiles. Our goal is to create a data base of the boundary layer characteristics over Wallops Island by routinely flying temperature, humidity, and wind sensors, ultimately to an altitude of 1 Km. Current testing has resulted in regular profiles to ~0.6 Km, with increasing altitude based on team experience, and systems confidence.

Future Activities:

Our primary focus will continue to be micro-atmospheric research using the Aeros and Aeroid UAV families currently under development. Future work will also encompass increased efforts towards the generalized instrument carrying capability for both remote sensing and in-situ measurements. Remote sensing missions with the BAI Aerosystems Tern will be augmented with a new UAV under development. This new vehicle is 50% larger, resulting from our request for a platform suitable for instruments in the 15 -20 Kg class. Experiments at Wallops will be formulated once this new platform has begun flying.

There are other platforms that are under consideration for testing at Wallops. Aeronautics Systems, Inc. brokers a series of vehicles that may be suitable for carrying remote sensing instruments, and Aerosonde offers a “miniature robotic aircraft” for long range meteorological measurements. Both providers may find Wallops Island compatible with their type of operations.

Continued development work with the NASA/GSFC Applied Information Sciences Branch (935/Coronado, et al) and the Star Aircraft Works is planned. The E-Gull, is an electric powered vehicle that will be suitable for student payloads of ~2 Kg, and the long range Kaddette and Rangaire platforms are being designed for ~3-5 Kg remote sensing systems.

We also plan to support two new educational outreach projects; instrumentation of the Port Discovery (Baltimore MD) tethered balloon (people carrying) with meteorological and imaging systems (130/Wells), and a UAV system for remote sensing in support of the Jason Project in California (935/Coronado).

Table of Projects:

Platform Launch Method, Propulsion Sensors: current,(planned) Performance Goals Current Status

Tethered blimp,Twin electric

Temperature, Humidity, Pressure, Airspeed, Turbulence (GPS, Ozone3-D Winds – QEI Technologies) 7 mps cruise speed (accomplished) 1.0 km launch altitude (pending) Three flights to date (to ~0.3 km altitude) Fall campaign planned for SBIR sensors
Hand launch,Single electric Temp, Humidity, Pressure, Airspeed Minimum flight crew of three (accomplished) Multiple profiles to ~0.3 km or single profile to >1.0 km (pending) One flight to date (to ~0.3 km altitude) Envelope expansion planned
Aeroid GT-1
Tethered blimp or Free balloon, Glider(XP – Twin electric variant) Infrared and visible video(GPS, T, RH, P, Reflectance, Precipitation Winds, O3, CO) Proof-of-Concept of low cost probe>10 km launch altitude In review for flight approval
Aeros 100 (SAW)
Hand launch,Single electric Infrared and visible video Proof-of- Concept30 minute flight with ~2 kg sensor In review for flight approval
Aeros 200 (SAW)
Hand launch,Twin electric (Winds, Ozone- QEI Technologies) (T, RH, P, GPS) Proof-of- Concept30 minute flight with ~2 kg sensor Under construction
ESP: Tern (BAI)
Wheel Launch, Gasoline (2-cycle) Micro-Spectrometer (972), Hyperspectral Imager (935) Wallops Island over-flights with two instruments (accomplished) Six flights to date

Flight anomaly investigation underway

Wheel Launch,
Gasoline (4-cycle)
Magnetometers (691), Satellite data system (567/935) ~50 km radius of operation for Iturralde Crater Expedition (Outreach option) Flight testing scheduled for June/July
Commercially produced blimp with custom winch Student designed: multiple video cameras with remotely controlled filters, downlink, Temp, RH, GPS(Digital, IR cameras) Routine flights to ~0.15 km over UMES campus (accomplished) >0.75 km altitude flight over Wallops Island (accomplished) Seven flights to dateW.I. image analysis continues. Third payload underway


Lead Investigator: Geoffrey Bland