The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is establishing a new Unmanned Systems Operations Program to support the agency’s expanding use of autonomous and remotely piloted vehicles such as UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) and USVs (unmanned surface vehicles). NOAA uses unmanned systems to collect high-quality environmental data, and the new program aims to promote safe, efficient and economical operation of these vehicles.
NOAA uses unmanned systems for applications such as seafloor and habitat mapping, ocean exploration, marine mammal and fishery stock assessments, emergency response, and at-sea observations that improve forecasting of extreme events, such as harmful algal blooms and hypoxia. The Unmanned Systems Operations Program is being established within NOAA’s Office of Marine and Aviation Operations (OMAO), which operates, manages and maintains the agency’s fleet of ships and aircraft and oversees NOAA’s diving and small boat safety programs. The program will provide services such as training, cybersecurity, acquisition and other expert support.
The new program will operate from two main locations. The NOAA Aircraft Operations Center in Lakeland, Florida, will continue to support the agency’s unmanned aircraft activities. A new facility being built by the Mississippi State Port Authority in partnership with the University of Southern Mississippi in Gulfport, Mississippi, will support unmanned maritime systems.
In addition to being a key part of NOAA’s recently released Unmanned Systems Strategy, the program will also help meet the objectives of the Commercial Engagement Through Ocean Technology Act of 2018, which requires NOAA to coordinate research, assess and acquire unmanned marine systems with the U.S. Navy, other federal agencies, industry and academia.
NOAA is partnering with the Navy to evaluate new unmanned systems technologies for ocean science applications through the Advanced Naval Technology Exercise (ANTX) program. Now in its fifth year, ANTX enables scientists and engineers to participate in the testing and assessment of experimental technologies that can support missions of both agencies. During the exercise, dozens of new systems are tested and demonstrated to help inform government and private sector investment decisions. NOAA is also exploring the use of artificial intelligence in combination with unmanned vehicles to collect and analyze large volumes of scientific data.
Timothy Gallaudet, Ph.D., deputy NOAA administrator, commented: “Unmanned airborne and maritime systems are transforming how we conduct earth science at NOAA. Our new Unmanned Systems Operations Program will help us dramatically increase the application and use of these technologies in every NOAA mission area.”
Rear Adm. Michael J. Silah, director of the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps and OMAO, stated: “With the creation of this new program, we will be better positioned to transition these technologies into operational platforms that will gather critical environmental data every American relies upon.”