Budget Squeeze Spurs U.S. Weather Collaboration

April 9, 2013 · 0 comments

by George Leopold, AMS Policy Program

The watchword for future federal weather efforts will be collaboration.

Budget sequestration has so far limited the options for program managers seeking ways to fund new observation platforms ranging from expensive satellites to ships and unmanned aircraft carrying weather sensors. For the U.S. military, which has taken the brunt of across-the-board spending cuts, a new weather satellite like the Defense Weather Follow-On System means fewer ships and planes.

The zero-sum budget process faced by federal agencies means that “if you want something, you have to give up something else,” says Robbie Hood, director of NOAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems program. “Our job is to look at all these new technologies” and identify the best option.

The Navy also is looking at unmanned aircraft along with new ship-based sensors as ways to monitor the lower atmosphere. The Navy’s weather requirements appear to mesh well with those of civilian agencies like NOAA.

The military services and civilian agencies such as NOAA are again attempting to share weather observation data as a way to stretch scarce dollars. Weather observing needs continue to dovetail across stakeholders as collaboration heats up among the services, civilian agencies and other entities. For example, the Army needs satellite data on conditions like soil moisture content when planning ground operations.

One area ripe for closer cooperation is ocean observations, an obvious focus for the Navy and a growing segment of weather observations for storm trackers and climate modelers. Leveraging emerging platforms like drones, unmanned boats and ship-based sensors could help fill part of the anticipated gap in satellite coverage of the Earth’s oceans. For the military, coverage gaps could result from either the failure of an Earth observation satellite, delays in launching the Defense Weather Follow-On System or the fact that U.S. weather satellites tend to target the coasts.

NOAA’s Hood said her office is working with other agencies to synch up new weather observation requirements. She noted that using unmanned aircraft for applications like monitoring Arctic sea ice, for example, is similar in many ways to military reconnaissance missions.

NOAA has purchased used Puma AE unmanned aircraft from the Army at bargain prices and will hand launch them from U.S. Coast Guard ships on test flights later this year. The unmanned aircraft have been used extensively by the Army to “see over the next hill.” The Puma AE has a 9.2-foot wingspan, weighs 13 pounds and can remain aloft for up to two hours.

Hood said monitoring Arctic sea ice using sensor platforms like the Puma is an ideal way to promote interagency collaboration given “our commonality of interests.” Continuing budget constraints mean unmanned aircraft outfitted with the appropriate weather sensors and navigation aids are the most cost-effective way to reach critical but remote areas like the Arctic, she added.

While NOAA is investing in Pumas, NASA’s weather drone fleet includes two high-flying, long-endurance Global Hawks purchased from the Air Force.  (NASA operates the unmanned aircraft and NOAA provides most of the sensor payloads.) Meanwhile, the Energy Department is working on new weather sensor systems that could be flown on drones operated by other agencies.

The acquisition strategy of civilian agencies like NOAA and NASA also seeks to leverage the U.S. military’s long experience flying unmanned aircraft. Not only are used drones cheaper, they require less testing. Hence, NOAA and NASA drones will help monitor melting Arctic sea ice this summer as part of the Marginal Ice Zone Observations and Process Experiment. The experiment focuses on targeted observations to gain a better understanding of local conditions like sea surface temperature and salinity during summer melts.

The Navy and NOAA could also collaborate on tracking ocean surface vector winds, Hood said. “There a lot of small, joint efforts designed to keep things moving” despite tight budgets, she added.

The tough U.S. job market, especially for returning veterans, might also be addressed if interagency collaboration expands. Hood said civilian agencies looking for drone operators could recruit veterans with experience flying Global Hawks in combat.