New NOAA program to support and expand agency’s use of unmanned systems
NOAA is establishing a new Unmanned Systems Operations Program to support the rapidly expanding use of these systems across the agency. The new program will promote the safe, efficient and economical operation of unmanned systems (UxS) NOAA uses to collect high-quality environmental data for the agency’s science, products and services. UxS are sensor-equipped vehicles that operate autonomously or are remotely piloted. NOAA currently uses UxS for seafloor and habitat mapping, ocean exploration, marine mammal and fishery stock assessments, emergency response, and at-sea observations that improve forecasting of extreme events, such as harmful algal blooms and hypoxia. The Unmanned Systems Operations Program is being established within NOAA’s Office of Marine and Aviation Operations (OMAO), which operates, manages and maintains the agency’s fleet of ships and aircraft and oversees NOAA’s diving and small boat safety programs. Its services will include training, cybersecurity, acquisition and other expert support to ensure safe, cost-effective operations across the agency. The new program will be housed at two locations. The NOAA Aircraft Operations Center in Lakeland, Florida, will continue to support the agency’s unmanned aircraft activities. A new facility being built by the Mississippi State Port Authority in partnership with the University of Southern Mississippi in Gulfport, Mississippi, will support unmanned maritime systems. NOAA received $12.7 million from Congress in Fiscal Year 2020 to improve and expand UxS operations across the agency, including the creation of the new program — a key goal of NOAA’s recently released Unmanned Systems Strategy.