#028 – How NOAA Spends A $5 Million Drone Budget with Robbie Hood

In Podcast by Ian Smith


The United States’ NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) has many responsibilities but they can essentially be thought of as the federal government’s “Environmental Intelligence Agency”. Robbie Hood, a meteorologist by trade, is the Director of the Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Program at NOAA. Ian and Robbie discuss the challenges and complexities of how NOAA uses drones for mapping of coastal erosion, studying sea level changes, populations of fisheries and marine mammals, and monitoring weather conditions across their territory of the entire United States—with a budget of $5 million per year.


Further analysis of this episode:

Robbie Hood is the Director of the Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Program at NOAA, and she detailed the sort of work she does in this capacity during her keynote address at the 2016 Commercial UAV Expo. During her “Impact of UAVs on Investment in Data Management” presentation, Robbie explained the critical ways in which drones have impacted the sort of data NOAA scientists can gather as well as how the organization handles the processing, analyzing and storing all of that info.

Commercial Drones FM podcast host Ian Smith was able to connect with Robbie for episode #28 of his show at the event, How NOAA Spends A $5 Million Drone Budget with Robbie Hood, where he explored the insights Robbie had to share with attendees even further. They discussed the specific ways NOAA is using drones as well as how that usage impacts the NOAA budget. Ian shared some additional thoughts around a few of the topics Robbie mentioned during the episode, including the usefulness of info gathered from an RGB camera, how data can be the ultimate equalizer and plenty more in this article.

Read through the additional insights Ian provided before or after listening to the podcast. You can also listen to the episode on iTunes or Google Play.

Jeremiah Karpowicz: One of the really interesting things Robbie mentioned was that a big part of her job is to use drones to help gather info in order to better understand what’s happened in the environment and then present that info to the public. Do you think it will be important for NOAA to reveal or even highlight when and how certain pieces of info are gathered by a drone? Could that effort be an important part of helping shift some negative public perceptions of drones?

Ian Smith: That’s an interesting thought. I think that since NOAA is a federal agency and in the interest of full transparency, it would be great for them to highlight specific cases where drones were used effectively. In fact, they may already be doing that. I don’t believe that they’d reveal their drone usage as a specific method to shift negative public perceptions of drones, however. Then again, these days I am firmly in the camp that the public really doesn’t view drones negatively anymore. I think the shock of hovering drones has worn off a bit and is more of an annoyance to some at this point, rather than a complete negative perception.

I know the question of whether or not an enterprise can/should build their own in-house drone program or utilize service providers is a topic you’re especially interested in, but it’s also applicable to organizations like NOAA, which you discussed with Robbie. It’s probably not a case of either/or for the industry as a whole, but it’s not even either/or for large organizations like NOAA, is it?

It’s definitely not. The reason I am so interested in this question is because most commercial drone entrepreneurs that I’ve spoken with have been fairly obsessed with this themselves. They want to know if as technology progresses, is there any job security. As advancements in software come about, it gets easier and easier to conduct high precision commercial drone operations, and these drone service providers wonder if they will still be needed or if large organizations will take the burden on themselves. Over the course of my interviews with keynote speakers at the Commercial UAV Expo, I have learned—emphatically—that the goal of the enterprise is not to do everything themselves. Their businesses literally cannot support that and most have developed large ecosystems of contractors who handle other very important aspects of their day-to-day businesses. It is no different with drones. Of course, a professional drone operator needs to provide more services than just flying the drone—they need to provide guidance, reporting, analysis, and more. But while software is making it ridiculously easy to make a drone fly a mission, it’s also making it easy to generate reports and analysis as well—see the DroneDeploy App Market as one example, which takes drone data to the next level by giving access to apps which can do amazing things with computer vision and machine learning.

With all the talk about current and upcoming sensor capabilities, were you surprised to find out that NOAA still gets plenty of useful and relevant info from a plain old RGB camera?

Not at all. RGB sensors can provide incredible value with the data they produce. Even though RGB data looks exactly what our own eyes see and it’s not as fancy or seemingly complex as something like multispectral data, RGB can be leveraged in non-conventional ways. For vegetation indices and agriculture, you can still glean unique insight from RGB data after applying specific algorithmic processing methods to it. Using computer vision you can count objects or automatically detect anomalies. But best of all, RGB data from drones really shines in the most simple of ways that our human brains quickly understand—as a high resolution, aerial view of an area that can be gathered and seen almost instantaneously. Although, I do believe that to really ratchet things up a few notches, combining that RGB data with data from other spectral bands (near infrared, red edge, infrared, etc.) is where things begin to get more interesting—by orders of magnitude.

Another topic that you’ve explored with your guests surrounds the need for complete drone solutions, and how many users don’t want a pile of data, but instead want an answer. Robbie talked about how that sort of system would be utilized and appreciated within NOAA, but also mentioned there are scientists and analysts who would want all of that raw data. That speaks to how many different wants, desires and needs surround this piece of the workflow in just about every environment, doesn’t it?

Indeed. More traditional enterprise organizations want answers. They want to be told what to do, how to do it, and why doing it is going to fix their problems. These are the agricultural co-ops, construction, mining, insurance, and utility companies. An organization like NOAA—and many other environmental and research outfits—absolutely have a need for all of that raw data. Whether it’s purely for conjecture or for their own analysis, it helps to have the full picture so that they can draw their own conclusions. That is not to say that the traditional enterprise do not want the raw data—on the contrary, they do—but rather, they want to purchase or implement solutions to known problems. A drone and a map is not a solution, but a map and a plan with a report which says exactly what to do, is. 

Robbie talked about data as an equalizer in terms of helping build a more diverse workforce. Do you think that will be the ultimate driver as we seek to make sure everyone who wants to get involved with this industry and technology has the opportunity to do so?

That was one of my favorite things anyone has said on the podcast so far. I absolutely believe it to be true and it was so elegantly put that it is undeniable. As drones become increasingly autonomous, the next hurdle is data—examination, analysis, and action. A well-trained human brain does not differ from gender to gender and brain power is what’s needed to manage and make use of this massive amount of data that drones are producing. Robbie’s career is inspirational for anyone who is interested in getting into STEM and the fact that a trained brain is what you need to succeed, anyone can make a career in these fields an entirely attainable goal.

via Commercial UAV News


#028 – How NOAA’s Drone Use Affects Our Lives with Robbie Hood

[00:00:03] [Introduction]: Welcome to Commercial Drones.FM, the podcast that explores the commercial drone industry. The people who power it and the concepts that drive it. I’m your host Ian Smith.

[00:00:14] IAN SMITH: Hey everybody and welcome to commercial drones.Fm, I’m sitting here in Las Vegas, Nevada at the commercial UAV Expo and I have Miss Robbie Hood here as a guest. She’s the director of unmanned aircraft systems, of the unmanned aircraft systems program at NOAA which is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration aka the Environmental Intelligence Agency. Welcome to the show Robbie.

[00:00:42] ROBBIE HOOD: Thank you very much.

[00:00:44] IAN: Yeah thanks so much for being here. So first of all you know maybe you can tell us a little bit about your background. I mean you know how did you start working at NOAA. And you know kind of how did you get here today?

[00:00:56] ROBBIE: Yeah I actually I’m a meteorologist by training I got to a bachelor’s degree in atmospheric science from University of Missouri a long time ago and then I got a master’s degree from in physical Meteorology from Florida State and I started off working in private industry and then I got a job for 21 years at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville and then I moved on to NOAA to be director of the Unmanned Aircraft System Program.

[00:01:21] IAN: Cool, What did you do while you’re at NASA? Where doing meteorology meteorology or?

[00:01:24] ROBBIE: Meteorology from the standpoint of building new instruments. So I’m trained as a meteorologist but I had I really ended up very interested in remote sensing and using sensors to using different kinds of sensors to monitor weather and at NASA one of our main jobs was designing new research satellites for weather and different kinds of climate studies and different kinds of environmental science studies. And many times you would either try out a new instrument on an aircraft first before he’d put it on satellite or you might have an aircraft instrument that might be used to calibrate and validate the satellite. So I was involved in a lot of different kinds of field experiments where we were using different aircraft to study hurricanes or tornadoes or you know different kinds of precipitation systems to help support some of the new NASA weather satellites.

[00:02:17] IAN: So does NAOH also do that right? They do the flying into the hurricanes and stuff?

[00:02:23] ROBBIE: Right. There’s a slight difference in between what NASA does and what NOAA does. NOAA is actually an operational agency and so they have the National Weather Service, so they collect data that’s given directly to the forecast or so they can help forecast the weather.

[00:02:36] IAN: So that’s where all of our forecasters get their data?

[00:02:39] ROBBIE: Exactly. Yeah exactly. But they also have a research component and it’s called the office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research and they for many many decades have been flying P-3 aircraft at lower altitudes through hurricanes. And if you’ve ever heard of the NOAA hurricane hunters, that’s who these folks are. They are hurricane experts and then they also fly through other kinds of weather systems over the ocean too.

[00:03:00] At NASA because you’re trying to look at or trying to compare data with satellites. NASA tends to fly at higher altitude so they would fly an aircraft called the ER2 that flies at 60,000 feet above a storm or they might fly a DC8 that flies at 40,000 feet that might fly you know collect information. They tend to use more remote sensors that were looking down through the atmosphere.

[00:03:24] IAN: Ok so now it’s making So we’re kind of leading towards the whole drone component here. So yeah so you’re the director of the unmanned aircraft systems program. So what is that program? What does that program do and why does it exist?

[00:03:40] ROBBIE: Well we’re part of the Office of Oceanic Atmospheric Research and our job really is to look at all the new drone or UAS unmanned aircraft system technology and see how they they could be used operationally within NOAA. So we have the National Weather Service with the NOAA, we have the National Ocean Service we have the National Marine Fisheries Service and we also have the satellite division which is called Nessus that collects national environmental information.

[00:04:04] All of these are used to help us better understand and predict what’s going to happen whether it’s a climate study or a weather study or ocean change or marine mammal changes ecosystem changes how our coasts are changing. So we collect the lot of information both so we can understand the changes that and help predict. And then our ultimate goal is then to be able to share that information with the public and then help decision makers who must make decisions based on that kind of information. And then you then in turn using that data to help make sure our coastal regions are competing communities across the United States are more resilient to earth science changes.

[00:04:42] IAN: So you are, your division or you yourselves are basically end users of drones then.

[00:04:51] ROBBIE: Exactly that’s the that’s the way we look at it yeah. I would say at NASA I did aircraft research to help support the satellite at NOAA. I’m doing I’m studying how to use aircraft in a new way so we can support the operational forecasters and scientists within the agency.

[00:05:09] IAN: Ok cool so you mentioned coastal communities and stuff so. There was actually, I mean I’m just drawing a comparison here. There was a really interesting you know Nature Conservancy, nature.org or doing this initiative I guess it was like a citizen science initiative and so now since people have drones all the time or not all the time. But drones are pretty common to have now you could participate it was called phones and drones and it was to monitor the coastal effects coastal erosion effects of El Nino on the west coast from like you know Washington down to the southern tip of California. And yeah that was actually pretty interesting.

[00:05:50] I don’t know if you were you aware of that program that they were doing like you could take. You can take your drone up and you can start taking photos of any like water or environmental events that you.

[00:05:59] ROBBIE: Right. Yes. That might have been a state, I wasn’t I’m not familiar with that specific project because it might have been a state run activity but within NOAA we have national marine sanctuaries and there are like national parks so there are regions of the ocean or coastline that are preserved and we’re trying to take care of them. Other times we’ve got we’ve got groups that are actually doing coastal mapping they’re trying to understand how the coasts are changing.

[00:06:24] And we do do a lot of monitoring. We have an office of response and restoration so if there’s an oil spill or a chemical spill say in an ocean or coastal region they go out to help assess it but many times in the coastal regions you’ve got different agencies different, federal agencies and different state agencies and different county agencies all working together to collect information. So some of our work we’re doing is we’re looking at how can NOAA provide the data and other times we’re looking at how can our partner provide the data and know how to use it. So I think the example that you just explained was probably a state endeavor that you know hopefully that the NOAH scientists are probably familiar with.

[00:07:06] IAN: That’s cool. So now I’m thinking I’m going to ask you this as to the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico you remember that of course. Do you think? well OK if something like that were to happen again is this something that NOAA would kind of step in now and maybe use this as like kind of leverage the UAS program and kind of do some type of like monitoring activities for?

[00:07:30] ROBBIE: Well we might. Yeah we actually we’ve done some demonstrations but we’ve tended to do those with other agencies we actually have partner with the Coast Guard and we’re very active in looking at how to and did simulation oil spills in the Arctic and how would if there was an oil spill or some kind of oil disaster in the Arctic. How would you how would the different agencies work together? So we actually brought some you hand watchable UAS to a coast guard ice cutter and we did an experiment for three years.

[00:07:56] IAN: The ice cutters is like one of those ships that goes.

[00:07:59] ROBBIE: Yeah that actually cuts through the ice and that’s the job of the Coast Guard. And if say if a person is strapped ship is stranded it’s a Coast Guard’s job to go out and cut through it. But they all share responsibilities when there’s an oil spill and some of our efforts at NOAA are there to look at. How would you restore that. You know the environment back to what it was. So everybody shares responsibility in monitoring the oil spill. And then NOAA has additional responsibilities. And you know being able to judge how severe the oil spill was to the ecosystems and then how you can restore it.

[00:08:34] So we have looked at you know we’re actually working through what’s the best business case for us for us to have our own vehicles and fly or maybe have a partnership say with several agencies state either state agencies or federal agencies or these local providers to get information quickly.

[00:08:52] IAN: That’s really interesting. So I’d love to talk a little bit more about that. So you know this is somewhat similar to something that I’m always very interested in. So drones of course are fairly new and are widespread adoption enterprise companies but I would call no similar to an enterprise company. I mean you know you’re pretty big organizations right. You know a large amount of employees and people so I could liken this to a question for enterprise companies. I sometimes have is that do you see yourselves operating the drones or do you want to contract out third party providers or contractors to do it for you?

[00:09:32] And the reason why this is interesting is because right now there are a ton of drone service providers like folks that may even you know they might have had a drone and said Oh I can try to monetize this thing now that the regulations are there or people that like you know just really wanted to get into this drone you know rodeo for lack of a better term to try to like make a little bit of money. So your perception of this and from you know you’re a federal agency correct. Right. That’s right. So what is your perception on this what goes into determining who is going to operate the drones for or with NOAA.

[00:10:10] ROBBIE: Yeah it’s definitely an evolving business case. And because. When I started the job eight years ago we were looking more at how could NOAA acquire these and we still there’s many cases where NOAA would you know maybe acquire these and some of the smaller ones we might have trained scientists that understand how to operate them at once they get up to a I guess more expensive more complex level we have. We actually have the Office of Marine and aviation operations and we actually have pilots in the agency that can operate these.

[00:10:41] But I would say too, one of the business cases we’re looking at our data buys. Are there local companies or local partnerships that we could take advantage of? so that we purchased the services and you know we’re just buying the data in a company could decide now decide which drone to use or they could decide if it’s a manned aircraft or a drone and they’re just giving us the data at the end of the day the most important thing though is we’ve also learned too that you know in a disaster situation like a fire or a chemical spill or an oil spill or anything in those you know there’s such a there’s such a network of emergency managers all working together that you have to make sure that you’re following the protocols of of you know how resources there is. So normally there’s one agency that might be the lead.

[00:11:29] And so we want to make sure to if we’re going to develop policies that we’re going to they’re going to be done you know in the proper way and that we don’t just show up with you know with the device to collect data.

[00:11:40] IAN: Hey y’all we’re hear with the drones.

[00:11:40] ROBBIE: Yeah. But I would say that you know one of the business cases we want to look at is purchasing you know from local providers because one of our rationales is if if you’ve got a company in the area and maybe they’re flying in in an insurance project today and then they might fly for another company you know another reason for a farmer tomorrow if they are already in the area, FAA are already used to them they’re used to the local terrain.

[00:12:05] IAN: Certified.

[00:12:06] ROBBIE: Exactly. They might be the best providers since trend of trying to bring in you know a special team a SWAT team for drones you know to come in and there may be situations where that’s more appropriate too. We’re just trying you know we’re trying to see how things are going to settle out with the industry and the regulations and really what we can afford as well.

[00:12:27] IAN: What is your area of operations?

[00:12:30] ROBBIE: Well I actually you know what we’re trying to look at is really the whole United States. You know we we have responsibilities for all over the United States and globally. So we’re really looking at more. How are the applications? And one of my jobs is to say you know we have fisheries scientists that really want to understand coastal changes and how those impact the same marine mammals or the local fish populations.

[00:12:55] We also have other coastal scientists want to understand you know sea level sea level rise changes or things like that or weather conditions. And so what I’m trying to match up is when do people have similar requirements they may be different kinds of scientists that may be a biologist versus the physicist versus atmospheric scientist but do they have similar needs like mapping needs. And how can we match up those kinds of capabilities so that there can be some economies of scale within our agency so that we have common either common procedures or common payloads and platforms are common. You know data management you know algorithms and things like that that will help us so that people can use the data in a similar way.

[00:13:39] IAN: Yeah so one of the reasons why I ask that question of your area of operations is because I think I knew the answer was going to be the United States and that it raises a few issues is that the United States is huge.

[00:13:52] ROBBIE: Yeah.

[00:13:53] IAN: So how are you going to get. I mean you might need to and I just had another conversation here at the UAV Expo with Nate from from Bechtel and they’re a huge company, they’re an enterprise company an end user as well.

[00:14:05] ROBBIE: Right.

[00:14:06] IAN: And so what their challenges is also like they’re global so they have different regulations to worry about just like you. And then also you know it might make more sense. So they want to do a mixture basically. We’re going to operate some ourself and we’re going to also contract out some others. And then the mechanism in which you find these pilots who can operate this I guess I don’t know if you have any ideas of how you’re going to do that but there are plenty of little directories and services out there that will help you do it. And some companies that are going to really be specializing in helping large entities get really nice certified you know buttoned up service.

[00:14:44] ROBBIE: Yeah it’s really going to the whole the whole industry has been so fascinating to watch over the last few years because every time we think we’ve got it figured out then you know another change will happen. And I think you know with the new part 107 rules I think we’re really going to see a lot of stabilization in companies. And so you know that’s why I’m saying and that’s I’m really not trying to hedge my bets. But you know we we had a business model we were looking at five years ago and now we’re starting to say well maybe we need to take a different look. Maybe it’s a different tact.

[00:15:14] And it all comes down to individual you know the other part is we have these line offices but we have a lot of individual line offices for example there’s a 122 National Weather Service offices in the United States and so if every one of them had their own drone system that’s you know that’s a big inventory but maybe they’re co-located with a you know another NOAA office the fisheries office or another.

[00:15:37] IAN: Ibet DJI would give you guys a great deal on 122.

[00:15:40] ROBBIE: But there might be ways that you know we can share assets or share data or you know. So it’s really you know it’s going to be evolving just like everything else and the you know drone industry right now.

[00:15:53] IAN: Mmm that’s true. So for custom. OK. You guys do some interesting things you mentioned mapping activities mapping the coast trying to find out different things about the ocean and the atmosphere which is your domain. What are you guys planning on putting any special sensors on these drones that can also take like you know I did like a project one time believe it or not on the global sea surface temperature rise. And I actually took the stand. I’m gonna get schooled right now but I took the stance in that global sea surface temperature.

[00:16:30] There’s not a noticeable change in arise when I’m pretty sure the data says that there is. I don’t know what your thoughts on there are are on that. But anyways custom sensors you know like with a camera you can’t really tell the temperature of the ocean and you can’t do other things like that with just the regular camera.

[00:16:49] ROBBIE: So yeah we’re really interested in the whole the whole business area of sensor development and you know miniaturization of sensors and there’s also you know basically that plays into which kind of platform we want. Sometimes our scientists will just say well I want a little platform because they know that’s the least expensive one but it may be more tedious to try to get if you’re mapping it you know for trying to observe a large area it may be much more tedious than to you say a higher altitude aircraft or you can cover more ground. So a lot of it is trying to match up in what’s happening you know in the in the industry. It’s been fascinating for me to watch because five years ago it really with a lot of the smalls it really was just basic camera systems and people used to talk about this.

[00:17:33] The payload and the platform is one and the same. And I even have I have some ocean oceanographers we’re working with and they they’ve told me well I don’t like that platform because I don’t like the data or I don’t like this platform because I don’t like the format the data set. And I reminded him several times just like once the industry matures it’s you know you’ll be able to find the data and it will be up to you know a service provider to give that data to you. So having more choices hyperspectral LIDAR is multi-spectral SAR radars. They’re all going to be really important going forward.

[00:18:07] But especially we’re trying to figure out which and the scientists want the raw data so that they can manipulate it themselves and which scientists just want to buy. They just want that you know they want the analysis and I think one of the common themes of this conference is it’s not just the it’s not the pictures it’s the analysis that goes with the data products so you know it’s definitely going to be involving. But I think I think there’s definitely a role for people that are really interested in the data delivery and data manipulation and data analysis.

[00:18:38] IAN: Do you get a lot of value right now from just the standard RGB sensor?

[00:18:45] ROBBIE: Yeah it just depends on the application. So we have we have oceanographers in NOAA, that are really they’re focused on marine mammal entanglements like a whale if it gets entangled in a in a fishing net and it gets beached you know they want something quick and dirty. Let me fly this really quickly. Go out and take a look at that animal to see how much stress it’s under. There’s a lot of cases like that where they’re trying to protect you know they want to take a look at it a you know an animal or a dangerous region before they send the people out.

[00:19:17] So you know they want quick and dirty looks but then others really want really three dimensional detailed maps. They’re going to do you know land line. You know definitely especially after you know we’ve got some of our river forecast centers that are interested in March and rivers before and after floods are going out on a regular basis to see what the water levels and how or the terrain changes. And you know I’ve learned that even you know in in a flooding situation where whether it’s a wintertime and you have little vegetation on the trees versus you know summertime when you’ve got a lot of trees that makes a difference. So you know it’s both getting quick data fast but it’s also being able to go out consistently on a on a very routine basis so you know once a week or once you know and especially in the Arctic I think once we drones really can be more productive.

[00:20:14] Here we’re going to you know it’s going to be real boom because there’s just so little data that can we can collect in the Arctic right now. You know we’ve got satellite data and we have ships and ice caps. But being able to fly you know either whether it’s a water vehicle or a lay in a land rover or you know an on an aircraft system being able to go out and sample sea ice conditions or weather conditions over the sea ice you know and having a better understanding of what’s happening there is going to be really important.

[00:20:42] IAN: So you have a satellite background. I mean you’ve spent a lot of time working on satellites working with satellites. Satellite versus drones, so we’ve been talking about drones this whole time. A lot of the activities you’re mentioning I’m sure are complimentary, satellites and drones. What are your thoughts on that? Like when are you pulling out? What are you saying? we need to get the drone there stats versus well just use the satellite imagery.

[00:21:08] ROBBIE: Yeah I really. It’s the same thing as talking about manned aircraft to you really right now we’re not in a place where it’s either or What I try to tell people is when you think about the higher altitude aircrafts like the Predator and the global hawks and he put scientific you know sensors on those. Think of those as augmentation of the satellite, because the satellite gives you a very good global coverage. But sometimes it’s not there when you need it. And what sometimes it still sees things a little you know a little less coarsely than you would with the with a with the high altitude drone. So the drones give you extra detail but it’s not it’s like the difference between a biopsy or it’s like the difference between an x-ray and a CAT scan. You know the satellites are more like the cat scan and give me the big broad picture but you still need an X-ray quick and dirty X-ray once in a while.

[00:21:59] So that’s one issue I think too one of especially in the weather realm. We’re starting to think about. Could you have a network of drones that are collecting meta logical information real low in the atmosphere? so that they could augment the ground based networks the rain gauge networks and the radar networks because there there’s a certain part of the atmosphere we need more observations more detailed observations what altitude are we talking about when you’re talking about the surface up to about 2,000 feet. Oh yeah it’s we call it the boundary layer it’s that boundary of atmosphere right above the surface.

[00:22:30] And there’s a lot of information there to help that we need. We think we need to understand in order to better forecasts you know whether it’s you know what the behavior of a hurricane is going to do or even how you know when frontal systems are moving through you know weather. Where are you going to have thunderstorm development where you’re not going to have thunderstorms. It may develop and really localized part of it may be localized conditions so having a better understanding. So thinking of them as augmentations to our current observing system is is actually you know I think it’s the way it’s going to pan out.

[00:23:04] But sensors the sensors are always going to get better. So satellite sensors are always going to get better and aircraft’s sensors are always going to get better. So I think it’s going to be basically an optimization exercise for a given application. Is it better to have a big satellite and you know two high altitude ones and then you know you know in a ground base radar network or you know is it do you want some cube sets in there. You know I think so there’s a lot of trade space that like I think cube sets and high altitude aircraft could be considered you know somewhat equal not exactly equal but they’re kind of you know that’s what you eat with each observing system you’re matching adding a different layer of resolution spatial and spatial and temporal resolution.

[00:23:53] IAN: What is the difference between a cube sat like a regular sat?

[00:23:58] ROBBIE: Cube sats are traditionally really really small. I like the sides not sometimes and not much bigger than a shoe box. And the idea is to launch a swarm of those so that they’re all working together instead of a big satellite that may have multiple instruments. So cube satellites are really there are considered. You know they’re given a lot of consideration now because they can be built quickly. NSF and National Science Foundation NASA are. You know looking at them as student projects. It’s a good way for a school you know student design.

[00:24:32] IAN: One of my colleagues I think have a cube sat. He made it the International Space Station or something I don’t know but very interesting guy, shout out to Manu Sharma, that’s awesome. So I’m like kind of like very giddy with excitement that we have like a meteorologist here expert because I have to ask and I have this is not really related. Our global average global sea surface temperatures rising I can’t get it out of my head I need to know your opinion on this. My stance I’m pretty sure it was incorrect but I had to take one.

[00:25:07] ROBBIE: We definitely have to monitor. Let me put it that way. So we have to it’s it’s a serious enough problem that we have pay very close attention so one of our duties at NOAA is to monitor coastal changes and to see what the sea surface conditions are.

[00:25:22] IAN: So let’s back up a little bit actually give the listeners some context. So what are the effects if indeed global sea surface temperatures are rising that means how are we affected?

[00:25:35] ROBBIE: Yeah. You’re going to have higher higher sea levels along the coast so that is actually going to start encroaching on your beaches and it may you know impact how close you can build your houses to the beach or how you know both how destructive storms impact you may not have it’s much barrier with sand barriers and things like that.

[00:25:55] One of the really interesting uses is we’re starting to using USAS as part of the National Ocean Service one of their jobs is to monitor. Basically monitor the surface in the United States and to do that. They fly very accurate sensors on manned aircraft that are that collect gravity information and they can convert the gravity information to surface basically surface height. So it’s really good for being able to map flood plains and see in the coastal sea sea surface levels. So it by updating those maps we are going to be more intelligent about what kind of disasters may happen you know with as as you know either storms increase or water levels increase.

[00:26:41] And one of the things that we did was put out a small business innovative research project and a company the company that wanted it is Aurora and they have been flying. They basically worked with another company that developed a brand new gravity sensor and one of the things the way to collect this data. The way they do it now is they have a manned aircraft and it’s a really really boring flight for a pilot.

[00:27:06] He does fly back and forth and turns out eventually over 15-20 years they get to go over every square inch the United States air you know. And that’s what they that’s that you know the product that they’re developing it’s for pilot it’s just so so boring and it has to be flown so so precisely. So we talk to our friends and said you know this is kind of a dull mission for a pilot Why don’t we try UAS, at the time our gravity expert said well we don’t wear our instruments are really particular we don’t know if they’ll be able to fly on an unmanned aircraft but we put out it.

[00:27:38] We said well let’s give it a shot we put on an SBIR and we’ve been working on this project for I guess over two years now and the team flew first demonstration of a gravity sensor on it’s the Aurora Center which is an absolutely piloted aircraft so you can have a pilot in the cockpit but it can still be controlled by you know. Control room pilots. Else place. And once they flew the instrument first they had a redesigned instrument that was just what it is a gravity sensor. So it’s a very it’s a sensor that can detect gravity to very very precisely. And so gravity we all think of gravity as one number but it really changes from one location to another based on you know the elevation of the surface of the. So it’s it’s very changeable we don’t you know the average person doesn’t notice and doesn’t notice any changes. But it is you know and it takes a very sensitive instrument to measure that.

[00:28:32] So when we flew the first, we flew the first test flights the scientists were actually really impressed with the performance of the US. It was operated from a control room but they had a pilot sitting in the cockpit and they said it was some of the best data they ever had. And they think part of it is because the the autopilot on the UAS is designed for precision because it’s a robot whereas an auto pilot for an unmanned aircraft is designed for comfort. So when you go to make a turn you want to do it gently so you’re not you know you’re not bothering the passengers on the plane. But in a UAS it’s you know it’s as if it’s a robot trying to get the job done. So they said it was actually in the long run it was much much more accurate data than they’d seen before. So what they’re going to be doing over the next few years is flying both the unmanned and the manned aircraft over you know over time to see you know if the manned aircraft could be as dependable and and precise as what they think it’s going to be.

[00:29:28] IAN: Do you have a drone yourself by any chance your personal your own?

[00:29:34] ROBBIE: Years ago I bought one for my husband when I first got this job and we’ve never flown it that much.So we had one in the house and we can play with it when we want to, but ours is old now that you know it would be like an old television set.

[00:29:51] IAN: It’s not like six months old and its already like a television set, we need to get you a more state of the art indoor flying drone. You can get him on Amazon. I mean that’s crazy yeah. How many people are on the on the unmanned aircraft systems team at your NAOH?

[00:30:11] ROBBIE: Yeah well my staff is around five or six dedicated employees. But I fund projects across the agency so I fund projects in the National Weather Service Fund projects. So my budget in general is about $5 million a year.

[00:30:25] IAN: OK. So you have to make due with that and get as much bang for your head as you can.

[00:30:30] ROBBIE: Exactly so we do a lot. You know I fund projects but we try to do partnerships as much as we can. We work with other government agencies that are using you know using drones. We have done Crators which are government private industry partnerships where we might we might provide the the requirement reserving requirements or the scenario and let a vendor come in bring you know some of their new equipment that they want to try out. And we’ve done that too.

[00:30:55] IAN: Cool. So what excites you the most about the drone industry right now? I mean have you been to the UAV Expo before? or did you go to any of the drone shows last year or anything?

[00:31:06] ROBBIE: This is my first one, The commercial UAV Expo, this is my first time here Ive been to other you know other drone conferences around the country. There’s two things that excite me the most is how the data are going to be used. I mean that the aircraft part is a lot of fun.

[00:31:21] IAN: You’re a data nerd.

[00:31:21] ROBBIE:It’s a lot of fun to watch. A lot of fun to watch but at the end of the day its the data you know and how can we you know it’s not like the early days of satellite where you got the data and then you figured out you know how to use it with other data I think because we have so many observing systems that are already working together it’s going to be easy to bring the drone. You know it’ll be fun and innovative to bring the drone into this mix.

[00:31:46] The other part that really gets me excited is because it’s such a fast developing you know industry but there’s so many different aspects there’s little you know little drones and big drones. I’m just really excited about that it may be a opportunity to really build a truly diverse workforce that you could actually use this is especially if you think about starting you know starting disadvantaged populations or minority populations in colleges working with small drones and letting them develop their careers going forward. I think it’s you know it’s definitely a way to really you know kind of branch out in science and engineering to open the doors to you know whether to make it a diverse workforce. We have an opportunity we really have a rich opportunity to make this as diverse a workforce as it should be totally.

[00:32:37] IAN: So that brings to mind so you know the drone industry right now is kind of actually becoming less and less so. Fortunately it’s been at least in its earliest stages were mainly dominated by men. And so I had Sally French I don’t know if you know who that is. She’s the drone girl on Twitter. She’s a really great kind of drone personality. She does a lot of cool reporting. And she was on the show and so we were talking about you know OK we need to get more women in the drone industry.

[00:33:08] And so what would be some of your advice maybe to a young lady who either wants to get started in like you know wants to take the path for environmental or meteorology or getting into the drone industry or someone who’s passionate about that stuff like you know maybe what would you say to that to that person to kind of help them out and encourage them.

[00:33:26] ROBBIE: Yeah. That’s a that’s a good question. I think part of it is still goes back to the data. You know to me data is an equalizer. You know you can and I would definitely if you’d told me when I was younger that I would be you know involved in aviation you know aviation environment. I would have thought you’re crazy because I just was I like the data but I wasn’t that you know it wasn’t that big into technology but once my career move forward I found out I really did have a passion for innovation. And to me that’s the you know that’s the other fun part is working with something that’s so new and changing so rapidly every day.

[00:34:02] In the early part of my career when I first started working with aircraft and field campaigns I would be the only woman sometimes and you know on a science team. Now this whole industry is so diverse. There’s women but there’s young people there’s you know all peoples of all different kinds of ages and it you really don’t have to be you know a pilot. You come from a pilot background you get involved you can come from an information background or a computer science background. You know there’s different avenues to get involved and there’s different ways you can contribute. So I think that’s exciting.

[00:34:33] IAN: Cool.Data is the equalizer. I love it. That’s true. Cool. Thank you so much. Robie Hood thank you so much for being on the show that was really eye opening. I have so many more questions that I didn’t even get to ask but we’ll have to try to do a follow up. Maybe if we can sometime you can go ahead and check out what NOAA is doing with drones at UAS.NOAA.gov on your web browser and then give their website a quick glance there.

[00:35:05] And that’s really it. If you want to follow your own podcast do so on Twitter @dronespodcast, Facebook.com/dronepodcast and you can subscribe on iTunes or whatever if you like what you’re hearing. We’d love to have you come back and listen once again. So thank you so much Robbie.

[00:35:24] ROBBIE: Thank you.

[00:35:24] IAN: We really appreciate you being on the show. And we are going to now cut off the mics, fly save everybody. Cheers.