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Monday, May 8, 2017

This Drone Once Fought Wars. Now It's Fighting Climate Change

This Drone Once Fought Wars. Now It

THIS MARCH, A truck pulled onto a runway in Oregon, towing a miniature plane for a test flight. At 650 pounds, the plane was too large to be a toy, but too small to fit a pilot.

That’s because the ArcticShark isn’t a toy, and it doesn’t need a pilot. It’s a drone. Department of Energy scientists at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory commissioned its design in order to fly over the Alaska North Slope to take data in the Arctic atmosphere. As it flies through the air at a modest 75 miles per hour, the drone will measure the size of atmospheric particles, levels of infrared radiation, humidity, wind direction, and more—measurements that will help scientists understand basic atmospheric processes like how clouds form, which they could eventually apply to climate models. “We still don’t have a good understanding of how these processes really take place,” says atmospheric scientist Beat Schmid, who leads the project at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

But the ArcticShark’s story didn’t begin with these atmospheric scientists in Oregon. It began with America’s wars in the Middle East.

The drone is the handiwork of Navmar Applied Sciences Corporation, a defense contractor founded in 1977 that originally focused on anti-submarine technology. About fifteen years ago, Navmar started making drones because the Department of Defense wanted them. The US military began using drones as early as 2000, first for surveillance—and later for targeted strikes. The DOD began calling for companies to develop more drones: faster ones, slower ones, ones that could carry heavier loads. Navmar answered one of their calls for a drone that could carry specific camera equipment. They built their first model in 2003, known as the Mako. “It kind of just grew from there,” says TJ Fenerty, Navmar’s Director of Business Development.

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