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Science meets commerce: Aerial data collection helped this small business soar

May 10, 2017

A small business that teamed up with NOAA to design a new tool that NOAA is using to improve the nation’s elevation measurements is now taking flight in the commercial market.

The Centaur flies over Nantucket, Massachusetts, as part of a project to identify great white sharks. The plane was operated remotely from a nearby research vessel.

Aurora Flight Sciences recently flew Centaur, an optionally piloted plane with a specialized gravity sensor, over California to survey a proposed high-speed train route for Northern and Southern California. Centaur gathered specific data to build a comprehensive model of the earth’s structure, including fault lines along the proposed rail route, to help planners and engineers design a safe rail system.

“As a result of test flights with NOAA, we earned a fair amount of visibility within the community,” said Carrie Haas, a program manager at Aurora Flight Sciences. “We were contacted by the organization supporting high-speed rail planning in California because gravity and magnetic surveys were needed for a better geographic model of the area. Our system was brought in to help support that process.”

The nimble Centaur aircraft can fly without a pilot in adverse conditions, over long periods of time, and at potentially lower costs to help NOAA increase the accuracy of elevation measurements.
The nimble Centaur aircraft can fly without a pilot in adverse conditions, over long periods of time, and at potentially lower costs to help NOAA increase the accuracy of elevation measurements. (Courtesy of Aurora Flight Sciences)

Unmanned plane is newest mapping tool
Aurora and NOAA began working together through NOAA’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. SBIR funds the critical startup and development stages and it encourages the commercialization of technology, products or services, which in turn stimulate the U.S. economy.

$4.8 billion

In socio-economic benefits is estimated when GRAV-D is completed around 2022.

Through SBIR, Aurora received research, development and testing support for the new aircraft system and sensor that could be used for NOAA's GRAV-D, which stands for Gravity for the Redefinition of the American Vertical Datum. 

This 15-year project will collect gravity measurements across the U.S. to support more accurate elevation measurements. These measurements will help planners predict how water flows for many applications, including floodplain mapping, infrastructure development, and marine transportation.

“This technology would not exist without the SBIR partnership,” said Monica Youngman, NOAA scientist and GRAV-D project manager. “SBIR provided the venue to explore and develop a new system, which turned out to be an extremely good method of gravity survey. We didn’t know until it happened.”

Media contact

Monica Allen, 301-734-1123