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AN INNOVATIVE ROBOT AIRCRAFT FOR ATMOSPHERIC MONITORING



Parliament House, Canberra
11 March 1998

Senator the Hon Ian Macdonald
Parliamentary Secretary to the
Minister for the Environment



I rise tonight to inform the Senate of an event that recently took place in the skies off the coast of Port Headland, Western Australia. This event, as I will explain, is a wonderful example of necessity being the "mother of invention"!

Though in this case it's more a matter of self preservation because until now getting important weather information from within a Cyclone was an occupation solely for the foolhardy. It involved daring aviators flying expensive aircraft as far into the storms as they could physically go - in an attempt to gather as much data as they possibly could to help meteorologists get a better understanding of cyclones and therefore improve their ability to forecast them.

So it is with some enthusiasm that I tell you that on Tuesday the 27th of January this year, as Tropical Cyclone Tiffany was spinning her way down the Western Australian coast, a small gathering of meteorologists and technicians were preparing to launch a small robotic aircraft, called an Aerosonde, for its first data collecting flight.

By all accounts the mission was a success and so this small aircraft has confirmed its potential as a very useful, low-cost method of gathering and transmitting weather information from remote areas of Australia and its surrounding oceans.

The magnitude of this feat is most definitely of biblical proportions in so far as this small aircraft with its thin, three metre wing and a distinctive inverted-V tail structure on twin booms seems wimpish, no match for a decent thunderstorm or cyclone, much like David and Goliath. Consider also that it has been designed to withstand stresses up to 15 times the force of gravity which, if you compare this with a passenger airliner in flight that is designed to withstand stresses around five times the force of gravity, gives you some idea of the conditions inside one of these storms.

This first operational flight was part of a six week trial that involved eleven Aerosondes in all and which saw a range of missions take off from the Cargill Salt Works outside Port Hedland in northwest Western Australia. The locals call this Cyclone Alley--and indeed the team were fortunate enough to be able to test this aircraft during severe Tropical Cyclone Tiffany.

A significant feature of this aircraft is that while, in this case, they were launched and recovered at Port Hedland, the staff working in the Perth Regional Forecasting Centre of the Bureau of Meteorology some 1500km away were the ones at the controls. By this process, forecasters were able to make special requests for observations anywhere within the designated flight region.

But the most satisfying aspect of this innovative environmental monitoring concept is that it is being driven by Australians.

The Aerosonde is being developed by a Melbourne company, Sencon Environmental Systems, in collaboration with the Bureau of Meteorology. The project leader, Dr Greg Holland of the Bureau of Meteorology Research Centre, has been working for several years on a project to harness converging aeronautical, computing and communications technologies and develop a weather reconnaissance instrument that could economically monitor those huge areas of the southern hemisphere where direct weather observations are rare or nonexistent.

The project has been endorsed by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction and is the result of commendable international collaboration, involving both public and private sectors. Dr Holland's major technical collaborator is Canadian engineer Tad McGeer of the Insitu Group Inc. Together they planned an airframe made of carbon fibre and kevlar tough enough to survive inhospitable weather, and powered by a 20cc engine. Within they crammed robust, ever smaller computers; the emerging technology of the global positioning satellite system; and sophisticated communications equipment. They worked out how to enable the aircraft to fly itself under almost infinite options of flight missions. Drawing on the expanding web of communications satellites, they learned how to command the aircraft in flight, how to transmit data continuously. And not least, how to bellyland the 15kg aircraft automatically in the nearest paddock or bit of flat ground.

Sencon Environmental Services is now assembling production aircraft in Melbourne. It has the potential to be a valuable scientific export, with more than 30 aircraft already sold to the US and Taiwan.

While the current aircraft are designed primarily for weather reconnaissance, carrying virtually the same radiosondes lifted by balloons from 37 Bureau of Meteorology stations, the Aerosonde is expected to be used in other environmental monitoring tasks; for example, carrying a small videocamera, or a wide range of chemical or other sensors, or perhaps search and rescue operations support.

Today's model will fly for 30 hours or more, up to 16 000ft if needed, all on a 20cc engine. And there's essentially no noise or environmental pollution. The recent trials included flights of 31 and 26 hours, and with eight daylight flights over seven hours. The research team expects that by the new century the Aerosonde will be able to fly for four days or so, with a range of 7000km, and reach perhaps 45 000ft with a new turbocharged engine-- enough to fly over a cyclone, and descend into its relatively calm 'eye'.

Even with today's aircraft, a laptop computer and a mobile phone will enable a scientist in eastern Australia to command the operations of an aircraft monitoring a cold front west of Perth. Indeed, during the recent trial, a test connection via the internet enabled a scientist at the Bureau of Meteorology Research Centre in Melbourne to assume operational command of an Aerosonde flying north of Port Hedland.

There has been close liaison with the Civil Aviation Safety Authority from the start of the program to ensure that Aerosondes can operate to their full potential while maintaining a high degree of safety and minimal disruptions to large aircraft operations.

The meteorological applications are numerous. As a North Queenslander with some unhappy acquaintance with tropical cyclones, I can see the immediate benefits of something which can remain in the vicinity of dangerous weather systems for days--or even penetrate storms. For instance, forecasting cyclone landfall remains a difficult task, and anything which can capture and relay the precise numbers--the pressures, temperatures, wind speed and direction-- from these hazardous systems will make for improved forecasts and a safer community.

You can imagine other targets. Pinning down the timing and intensity of a cold front affecting firefighters. Tracking a southerly buster whipping up the NSW coast. Patrolling the data void in the Indian Ocean west of Perth.

Research, too. In late 1995, prototype Aerosondes contributed to an international atmospheric research project which studied the afternoon thunderstorms which form over the Tiwi Islands north of Darwin before the Wet season. Following the Port Hedland operational trials, the weather squadron is to be sent off to another multinational experiment, studying the monsoon lifecycle in the South China Sea. Transport's easy--unbolt the wings and tail assembly, and they pack into special suitcases. A scientist can carry an Aerosonde as aircraft luggage.

Aerosondes are expendable, of course. They will be expected to work at times in weather conditions that menace 'big' planes--downbursts from thunderstorms, icing, turbulence, very strong winds. They also can be used to monitor severe environmental hazards, chemical spills, radiation and forest fires where humans can only proceed at considerable risk.

And their complex computing, navigation and communications package complicates the risk. But with a production cost currently below $20,000, and at least 20 missions expected from every airframe, they are a monitoring device that merits serious consideration.

I commend the lateral thinking and effort that created these tiny high-tech environmental monitors. And the elegant engineering that has provided a robot that flies by itself and currently squeezes over 500km from a litre of fuel!

Commonwealth of Australia