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Sampling of atmospheric phenomena is an important component for research and modeling in the climate and atmospheric sciences, and as such, methods for obtaining high resolution atmospheric data have become an increasingly important and relevant engineering challenge. This data has a variety of applications ranging from monitoring climate change to disaster response. The capability, however, to safely collect direct samples from hazardous atmospheric phenomena has been technically elusive, particularly for those events occurring at high altitudes. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV’s) hold great potential for conducting this type of atmospheric research. Instruments that can be easily and cost-effectively integrated on-board UAV’s will augment NASA’s ability to conduct innovative atmospheric research particularly in situations deemed too dangerous or risky for manned aircraft.

Specifically, while retrieving ash samples from actual airborne plumes during volcanic eruptions has so far been a rare event, the ability to collect and analyze ash from such plumes would significantly benefit hazard prediction for aviation safety. Recent eruptions of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland (2010) and the Puyehue eruption in Chile (2011) highlight this need. Ash samples taken directly from the plumes would have been able to show composition and size distribution of hazardous particulates, greatly improving the ability to model and predict the location and extent of the aviation hazard.

Particle and aerosol collection systems suitable for small class UAV’s and dropsondes are not readily available and in many cases, researchers develop their own samplers and sensors for atmospheric research. Developing a particulate sampling system that can be used on a guided dropsonde, therefore, represents an extremely valuable technological advance.

Latitude Engineering has performed significant work towards fulfilling this scientific need. In 2011, NASA awarded Latitude a Phase I SBIR to develop an Advanced Guided Dropsonde. In 2013, NASA awarded Latitude another Phase I SBIR to develop an In-Situ Airborne Sampler for The Advanced Guided Dropsonde. In 2014, NASA awarded Latitude a Phase II SBIR award to further develop this concept as the NavSonde Atmospheric Sampler.


Guided dropsondes have significant implications for advancing research in nearly all scientific disciplines requiring in-situ atmospheric measurements. Compared to conventional free-fall dropsondes that rely on parachutes, guided dropsondes offer speed controlled descents combined with the ability to loiter. These unique abilities can potentially yield time-averaged data for a particular region—a feature not currently available with existing dropsonde technology. The guided dropsonde’s ability to move to targeted areas of interest gains sensors an unprecedented level of access to extreme areas and events. The ability to move to a designated area allows the retrieval of the guided dropsonde, giving it the capability to become an in-situ sampler. For volcanic eruptions or pollution studies, this can become a powerful new tool where few options, if any, currently exist. Therefore the development of a sampler engineered for a guided dropsonde is critical to realizing the full potential of this innovative airborne platform.

Expanding the roles of UAV’s in conducting earth and atmospheric research will open many research opportunities—especially in Earth’s polar regions where there is currently a definitive lack of data collection capability. UAV’s hold a great deal of promise for advancing earth science research endeavors, however they can also come with logistic obstacles such as FAA regulation and ITAR restrictions.

Two key advantages of Latitude Engineering’s NavSonde platform include: (1) FAA regulation as a dropsonde and not a UAV and (2) freedom from ITAR restrictions since its guidance system does not fall under ITAR jurisdiction. The NavSonde is an ideal airborne vessel to house in-situ sampling instruments for missions that will occur both inside and outside of US National Airspace.


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NavSonde Atmospheric Sampler showcased by EngineeringTV at AUVSI 2014