The challenge here is to expand the envelope of unpiloted aerial platforms to allow operations in some of the most difficult environments on Earth. Flights in environments such as volcanic plumes, wildfires, and severe storms can gather critical data to validate existing models that are used to provide information that can affect human safety. The accuracy of these models has direct implications to the uncertainty of warnings and limitations for volcanic ash hazards, pollution alerts, severe storms, and wildfire smoke hazards. Improved data collection and model validation are two powerful ways to improve the accuracy of the models and the important safety systems they support. Ground systems, crewed aircraft, and balloons supply this in situ data but are not without limitations. Satellites are also used but suffer from various limitations such as infrequent coverage, cloud masking, and limits in resolution.
BST proposes the S3 UAS, an uncrewed aircraft that leans heavily on legacy BST UAS and represents a revolutionary change in the capabilities of small UAS for Earth observing. The innovation can be grouped into two main areas; a redesign of the S2-VTOL airframe for all weather operations and developing technologies for long duration unattended missions consisting of many flights over days to months. The S2 has conducted many difficult deployments, but the proposed work will extend the capabilities to a much larger mission set. The redesign for severe weather will be extensive and include a new aerodynamic design and modifications for precipitation and icing. The long duration capability represents a dramatic shift in how UAS data gathering for Earth science is conducted. Essentially, the aircraft will be capable of autonomous landing and recharge of it's batteries through solar panels integrated into the wings. The idea here is that the S3 does not have to return to base after each flight, but can be left out to conduct missions of timescales of days to months.
NASA applications will focus on existing areas BST flies UAS for NASA missions and then expand to new areas with the unique capabilities of the S3. Current areas include volcano monitoring and satellite calibration. BST uses the S2 and S2-VTOL for volcano monitoring and the S3 will expand the capabilities in this area greatly. BST has also worked on satellite calibration for the MALIBU project. The capabilities of the S3 will enable much larger areas for this type of work and the potential to demonstrate the weeks to months mission concepts.
The primary non-NASA application is the monitoring of pipelines for methane leaks, which is a very potent greenhouse gas. A system like the S3 that can inspect hundreds of miles of pipeline per day without the cost of a human operator could vastly expand the ability to monitor and find methane leaks. BST is already partnered with a sensor company to provide this service with the S3.