Project Monark Goes to Wyoming

As we stated in our first blog post, we already have the technology required to advance our weather knowledge to a new cutting edge of understanding, so it has been immensely gratifying to begin to put that technology to the test. Our team just returned from a seven-day stint in Laramie, Wyoming, where we worked with the team at the University of Wyoming’s Atmospheric Research Flight Center, a fully-instrumented flying laboratory partially supported by the National Science Foundation. We went to test our GNSS-RO (Radio Occultation) sensor in a fully-characterized flight environment on their research aircraft to capture the best dataset possible for assimilation quality bending angles for weather forecast improvement.

(Note: to see more awesome innovations coming out of Airbus you can check out their YouTube channel here)

Excellent equipment made the whole testing experience enjoyable. The sensor we tested was developed with our X-Works teammates at Airbus Defence and Space. We had two additional payloads developed by our partners at Night Crew Labs who work on balloon-based atmospheric sensing.

We lucked out with six perfect flight testing days in various conditions, for a total of 24 flight test hours over eight flights. We flew optimal flight paths for taking our measurements and our payloads operated correctly, providing us the data we expected.

This trip was much more than just capturing high quality datasets. Aviation is a passion, one which you can typically trace down to a moment of inspiration, and excitement. This trip brought me back to my original joy, inspiration for flight, aircraft, and science.

My grandfather always wanted to be a pilot, but his eyesight meant he was confined to the ground. This didn't stop him - or stop him from encouraging me. When visiting my grandfather’s house, we would go in his workshop and there would be all sorts of flying contraptions hanging from the ceiling. We would test our flying machines, mostly ending in long hours of repair, glue, pins and clamps.

When I walked into the hangar in Laramie, I was met with that familiar smell of worn work tables, fuel, oil and bearing grease. While these smells are especially nostalgia inducing, the single digit, biting cold of February in Wyoming brought us all directly into the present.

My role at Acubed leading project Monark is to accelerate aircraft-based sensing, and the development of tool sets that can generate valuable weather-based insights using the best input data available. I’m very excited to be flight testing a sensor payload that has the potential to improve our choices we make around weather-related events by adding truth data to forecast models and improving accuracy.

The flight testing in Wyoming allowed us to test our GNSS-RO sensor and capture the best dataset possible for processing assimilation quality bending angles for weather forecast improvement. It's a fairly simple measurement that uses the geometry of a satellite and aircraft trajectories and the physics of a signal that passes between them, cutting through the atmosphere and bending as it does. We measure the signal above and below the horizon. This can be processed to produce a bending angle that corresponds to the atmospheric conditions along the path that the signal travels. Our goal is for that path to get as close as possible to the surface.

Radio Occultation measurements are currently captured by satellites with about 2,000-3,000 a day being delivered as input to weather forecast models. NOAA has a goal of capturing 20,000 a day, and even with new constellations and commercial players in line for launches, there is a 15,000 a day measurement gap. We want to demonstrate that these measurements can be conducted by the thousands of commercial aircraft flying globally everyday.

The UW King Air facility is outfitted with an amazing array of atmospheric sensing instruments. When conducting science in the aircraft, you can pull up all of the data on displays that are in the two rear seats, and the co-pilot seat. Each sensor can be plotted versus another, time, altitude or other variables.

The aircraft state (such as roll, pitch and yaw) is also recorded, and any extra custom instrumentation or camera systems can be integrated into the aircraft network and displayed. The aircraft has a satellite communication link and can be tracked, sending back real-time variables like wind on a special NCAR mission tracking tool.

We will spend the next few weeks poring over the data we have collected, and working with our partners to leverage distributed, connected sensing to improve life on Earth. It comes from pure passion for the pursuit of knowledge and a love for aviation. Being in this place at this time is a real treat and this past week reminded me to be grateful, to acknowledge the people who sparked my passion and fueled it through the years.

In the end, I got to spend a whole week being a test pilot. The views that we would see on this flight campaign were overwhelmingly stunning. Stay tuned for more adventures.

- Mike Vergalla