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16 July, 2003


The warm spell has broken. It is 31 degrees F, the wind is blowing at 15 mph and it is snowing. The high today reached 35; the wind slowed to 8 mph by the afternoon. It stayed overcast and cold all day.

I awoke at 6 a.m. to an NPR commentary about UAVs.

The speaker stated that UAV technology has outpaced laws regarding UAV use (he was referring to US FAA regulations), consequently they are not being used to their full potential in the United States. I mentioned the gist of the program to David over breakfast. He told me that the FAA in the US won't let UAVs fly over land, but in Australia provisions regarding their use are already in place. I certainly don't know about FAA regulations, but it seems a shame that such a useful piece of technology is not taken full advantage of in the US. Perhaps the FAA will re-evaluate and make provisions for commercial UAVs in the near future.

Flight Plan

I was wrong about the flying today. Clay has been ground-tested, but still needs to have the instrumentation put in place. The other two Aerosondes must also need to be checked out prior to flying. Jim Maslanik arrived last night, and he has been busy working on the mission plan. Brett, Daniel, and I drove out to the launch site to set up the antennas and to make sure that the computer out there is operational.

Two antennas, combined into one structure, were attached to the side of the runway hut. The vertical portion of the antenna radiates signals in all directions, but over a limited range. The horizontal portion, a directional antenna, sends signals over about a 30 degree sweep and over a long range.

There are two GPS antennas on the roof and an airband antenna for radio communication with the ground crew and local air traffic control. The Aerosonde has GPS sensors in the wing and in the tail.

Since this flight will be over a relatively short distance, the Aerosonde will be controlled by radio signals. Longer flights, planned for later in the week, will require an Iridium telephone. Iridium cell telephones enable the Aerosonde be flown from any point on the globe as they are controlled via low-level satellites instead of radio waves.

1030 a.m. snow, clouds moving in

After preparing the runway hut, I spent the remainder of the morning in the workshop (called the "Theatre") learning more about the components that Clay will carry today and about how a flight plan is programmed for the aircraft.

David uses a type of mission-planner software to program the Aerosonde. It seemed very intuitive while he was explaining it to me, but I am sure that it is much more complex. I was happy with the Reader's Digest version as a starting point. To begin, he must define an initial point of reference, such as the runway, and then define three other points that will make a 3-diminsional "box" as a frame of reference for the Aerosonde. The airplane flies around within the box area (according to other parameters that are set). To change the fight plan the box is repositioned by changing one or more of the reference point. This relocates the box and the airplane follows along. Size, shape, and orientation of the box may be changed at any time during the flight. The computer stores these flight plans and can replay them at any point.

The plan for today is to fly as far north as possible and collect atmospheric data. The weather is beginning to change, so we are going to wait until after lunch to make a decision about flying.

Jim wants to study weather predictions and cloud cover charts before flying, so we won't fly until tomorrow. There are two other planes to prepare, and the crew could use the time to work on those.

Alaska weather models are not sufficient for the Barrow area. There are many local variations in cloud cover and wind patterns that apparently do not show up well on large-scale weather maps. Models for accurate predictions are critical for Barrow and this section of the North Slope. Residents need time to prepare for severe weather in order to protect the shoreline from further erosion and to protect the utilidor. Using UAVs to fly north to about 77.9 degrees could give a more accurate view for what is happening weather-wise in the immediate area.

Construction of the Aerosonde

In the back of the Theatre were the remains of Duigan, an Aerosonde that went down over the ice last spring. Such wrecks are recovered, if possible, so that the crew may analyze what might have gone wrong during the flight. Viewing this wreck gave me the opportunity to see the interior construction of the Aerosonde. Since I have no background with glider construction, Dennis and Brett explained how they are made. An aluminum mold is formed and sprayed with a release agent and then paint. After this a layer of glass, then balsa, then glass again is laid down and a carbon spine is placed in the wing. This is then vacuum compressed. The nosecone is made out of Kevlar. Brett is the resident expert on wing construction; he builds competition gliders in Australia. The Aerosonde engine is fuel injected, there is no carburetor. The air/fuel mixture can adjusted from the computer during flight.

We returned to the NARL complex in time for dinner.

The Bird Man of Cooper Island

One finds the most interesting people here in Barrow. A gentleman joined our table for dinner tonight. He said that he had been out on "the island" for 5 weeks. I assumed that he was some kind of researcher or someone visiting Barrow as part of a project team. He was talking with two graduate students from Michigan State University (Sean and David) about their mapping project (making a map database of research sites, former and current, in the area). Sean and David expressed interest in mapping the coastline of Cooper Island, where this gentleman was from. They were also interested in his idea of using arctic seabirds to monitor climate change, and possibly mapping areas where southern species of birds are moving into the Arctic area. As it turns out, this fellow is George Divoky - an ornithologist who has spent every summer for the past 28 years studying guillemots and other shorebirds on Cooper Island. He is well known in the science community for his careful documentation of the changes in bird populations in the Arctic.

I wish that my students could have the opportunity to hear such conversations and see for themselves how different areas of science/scientific research overlap and support each other. No study is truly isolated. Students often categorize science into specific boxes (they don't understand how computer science and biology could ever fit together), thereby missing the most important aspects of science: communication, cooperation, and sharing - all for a common purpose.

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