The atmosphere is three-dimensional, but most direct measurements of atmospheric processes are made from the lower boundary. Balloons, kites, and instrumented towers permit some observations above the surface but are of limited utility for studying processes at micro- to mesoscale spatial resolution. Conventional research aircraft have long been used for large field campaigns but are too expensive for most smaller field projects and cannot safely operate within confined horizontal spaces or at very low altitude.
In recent years, small drones have been become viable airborne research platforms and address some of the logistical and cost challenges of conventional aircraft. But these have serious limitations of their own. In particular, they are restricted (in lieu of an FAA waiver) to altitudes below 122 m above ground level and to horizontal excursions within view of the operator— typically less than about 1 km. Instrument payloads are also limited.
At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, we are developing two manned ultralight airplanes as airborne research platforms. One of the two is equipped with electric drive and has the potential to become the first-ever electric-powered manned research aircraft.
Envisioned as flexible multi-mission platforms, these will be able to safely operate at extremely low altitudes and over small study areas, but without regulatory restrictions on altitude or horizontal distance. Leveraging off-the-shelf drone technologies, the pilot will be able to navigate precise flight plans to collect measurements over 10s of square kilometers per flight.
We anticipate extremely low operating cost and high scheduling flexibility, making airborne flights of mission-specific instruments readily accessible to the research community for proof-of-concept studies and as painless add-ons to meteorological and environmental field studies with smaller budgets.