Saildrone carrying multiple sensors with NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson in the background. (NOAA)

NOAA expands use of unmanned systems

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is expanding its use of drones, setting up a new program to support efficient use of the growing number of aerial and maritime systems it deploys to collect environmental data.

NOAA’s use of small unmanned aircraft for science missions has increased more than tenfold since 2012, officials said, as unmanned systems (UxS) are increasingly used for seafloor and habitat mapping, ocean exploration, marine mammal and fishery stock assessments, emergency response as well as at-sea observations.

The new Unmanned Systems Operations Program will be part of NOAA’s Office of Marine and Aviation Operations. It will provide training, cybersecurity, acquisition and other centralized support services as the number of UxS missions increase.

“The purpose of the program is to provide higher quality, cost-effective services at faster cycle times that result in higher operational performance and safety than any individual NOAA office or program can provide for itself,” NOAA said in its Unmanned Systems Strategy.

NOAA’s Lakeland, Fla., Aircraft Operations Center will continue to support the agency’s unmanned aircraft activities. A new facility being built in Gulfport, Miss., will support unmanned maritime systems.

NOAA said it is also exploring the use of artificial intelligence to collect and analyze large volumes of scientific data gathered by unmanned systems. It’s recently released Artificial Intelligence Strategy calls for leveraging AI to reduce the cost of data processing and deliver higher quality and more timely services to advance the agency’s mission.

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