DOE teams with MSU’s Raspet Flight Research Lab to fine-tune UAS used in atmospheric research

June 02, 2021

Contact: Chris Bryant

Engineers work to fine-tune an unmanned aircraft at Raspet.
Matt Newburn, from left, of ARM, along with Connor White and Miles Ennis, both of Raspet Flight Research Lab, integrate instrumentation into a TigerShark unmanned aircraft. (Photo by Chris Bryant)

STARKVILLE, Miss. – A U.S. Department of Energy facility is partnering with Mississippi State’s flight research laboratory to fine-tune the in-flight performance of unmanned aircraft systems used in atmospheric research.

Officials from the DOE’s Atmospheric Radiation Measurement user facility, known as ARM, recently traveled to MSU’s Raspet Flight Research Laboratory, where more than a dozen scientific collection instruments have been integrated into a Raspet unmanned aircraft system, or UAS, and flown. 

“We’re very enthused about this collaboration,” said Beat Schmid, manager of the ARM Aerial Facility at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. “Raspet has a very mature program. We are learning from them how to have a stable operation and how to effectively operate these UAS.”

The ARM representatives’ multi-day spring visit to Starkville is an early step in the yearlong, $300,000 research collaboration, which later will include research flights near Greenwood and Blackwell, Oklahoma.

“Raspet deeply values the opportunity for scientific collaboration with the Atmospheric Radiation Measurement team,” said Tom Brooks, Raspet Flight Lab director. “The ARM –MSU partnership is strong. Together, we are advancing science through the exploration of the effectiveness of highly specialized instrumentation at its earliest development stage.”

ARM uses UAS to collect atmospheric data to help drive research worldwide. ARM collects, processes, quality-checks, stores and distributes continuous measurements gathered in climate-critical locations around the world. Data gathered is used by scientists to improve predictive computer models for climate change.

“Everybody around the world can download our research data free of charge,” said Fan Mei, who oversees science activities for the ARM Aerial Facility.

Based out of PNNL in southeastern Washington, ARM Aerial Facility operates its own UAS – a custom-built version of the TigerShark Block 3, one type of UAS that Raspet also operates. ARM develops instrumentation for atmospheric measurements, flying them aboard its aircraft for testing and data collection. While its own UAS undergoes upgrades and modifications, ARM is collaborating with Raspet to accelerate its research.

A first step is taking the experimental scientific instrumentation from ARM’s aircraft and integrating it into Raspet’s.

“The uniqueness of our current payload is that all the instrumentation is miniaturized,” said Mei. “It was our first time to deploy them aboard a TigerShark UAS.”  

In ARM’s version of the TigerShark, known as an ArcticShark, a nose cone mounted to the front of the aircraft holds an aerosol inlet in position. This lightweight, cylindrical shaft that protrudes 13 inches, has a narrow opening at its front where aerosols enter during flight and are distributed to scientific instruments aboard the aircraft for analysis.   

Modifications to Raspet’s aircraft were necessary to equip it with the inlet and to integrate ARM’s instrumentation. One of Raspet’s MSU partners, the Advanced Composites Institute at MSU, designed and 3-D printed a mold used to produce a fiberglass nose cone that was attached to Raspet’s aircraft.

Further testing of ARM’s scientific instruments flying aboard Raspet’s TigerShark will be scheduled soon. 

Once COVID-related travel restrictions ease, Raspet and ARM personnel plan to travel to ARM’s Southern Great Plains atmospheric observatory along the Oklahoma-Kansas border. There, at the world’s largest and most extensive atmospheric research facility, the team will conduct research to confirm the validity of the new instrumentation while collecting data.  

Alan Martinez is Raspet’s principal investigator for the project.

ABOUT ARM

The Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) user facility is a multi-laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) scientific user facility and a key contributor to national and international climate research efforts.

ABOUT RASPET FLIGHT RESEARCH LABORATORY

MSU’s Raspet Flight Research Laboratory is the only institution in the world that is designated both as the FAA’s UAS Safety Research Facility and as official UAS test sites for both the FAA and the Department of Homeland Security. Home to a fleet of the largest and most capable unmanned aircraft in academic use, Raspet has secured more than $50 million in federal research and testing contracts since 2017 and remains a world leader in composite materials research.