TAMPA - Inside Hangar 5 at MacDill Air Force Base may be the future for missions flown by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
NOAA operates the storied fleet of P-3 Orions that fly out of MacDill into hurricanes, but the agency also is responsible for flying aircraft on a wider variety of missions including monitoring the health of marine species and watching for poachers.
Those jobs are traditionally done in aircraft such as the Twin Otter or King Air 350, both twin-engine piloted propeller planes. But the agency is also experimenting at MacDill on whether these missions can be performed cheaper and safer using a small fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles.
The agency is flying the drones "on more dangerous missions," said NOAA Corps Lt. Chris Daniels, a NOAA pilot for eight years stationed at MacDill for the past five. "We are trying to find out if they are truly cheaper to fly."
One such mission, he said, was in the Olympic National Marine Sanctuary in Washington State, where jagged rocks make manned flying at low altitudes dangerous.
Hangar 5 is home to more than half a dozen of the drones.
There are six "Puma" models, hand-launched aircraft with 5-foot wingspans. Each one has a 5-megapixel camera and can fly for about two hours at speeds up to 55 miles per hour and altitudes up to 10,000 feet. With computer and ground control systems, they cost about $100,000 each, said Lt. Cmdr. Jason Mansour, chief of the Unmanned Aerial Systems Section at NOAA
There is also one "MD4-1000 Quadrocopter," which looks like a small UFO with four propellers. It can fly for about an hour at 35 miles per hour at a maximum altitude of little more than half a mile. Flown by hand, it can travel as far as three-quarters of a mile, Daniels said.
When programmed, it can fly about 35 miles round trip. It is equipped with a Canon NEX 7 camera that can provide near-broadcast quality images. With the computer and ground control station, this also costs about $100,000, Mansour said.
The base also hosts another drone, called an WMD-59, which the team built as a trainer model for the Quadrocopter.
NOAA also has a much bigger, Global Hawk jet-powered drone at Edwards Air Force Base in California, which it uses in conjunction with NASA on weather research missions.
While no missions are flown out of MacDill, they are planned here, said Daniels. And eight of the program's 40 drone pilots are based here as well. They hop commercial flights to get to missions; the drones are sent via Fed Ex.
Recently, NOAA used the Puma models to fly over the Channel Islands off Santa Barbara, California, on a joint mission of the Coast Guard and NOAA to examine the health of marine mammal and seabird populations and to see if anyone was fishing there illegally. A similar mission has been flown in the Florida Keys.
The Puma, originally designed by the Department of Defense to help troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan locate enemies, "are an ideal platform for such missions," Daniels said.
NOAA flies about one drone mission a month, planned as much as a year in advance, Daniels said.
One reason for such long-range planning, he said, is that any drone flights in the National Air Space - non-restricted areas used by commercial aviation - must be approved by the Federal Aviation Administration. NOAA also has to coordinate with a number of government agencies the radio frequencies used to control drones.
"It usually takes about 120 days to get all the approvals," Daniels said.
Many of the missions are flown for NOAA's National Marine Sanctuaries Program, designed to protect natural areas such as the Channel Islands and Looe Key in the Florida Keys.
The Pumas and Quadrocopter each take two pilots to operate, Daniels said. One flies the aircraft, using a device that looks like the double-handled controller of a Sony Playstation 3 with a video screen that shows the view from the drone's camera.
The other pilot operates the mission laptop, which takes in live feeds of images and telemetry from the drones. The feeds can also be monitored by partner agencies, Daniels said, such as the Coast Guard.
Pilots at MacDill fly the Quadrocopter over the base's baseball field to develop their flying skills and test camera equipment. The pilots travel to the Avon Park Air Force Range near Sebring to maintain their skills on the Pumas, which require a much bigger area for takeoffs and landing.
When the drones operate in the National Air Space, they only fly as far as the pilots can see them, Mansour said.
The program costs about $75,000 per year to run, said Don Aiken, executive officer of NOAA's Air Operation Center at MacDill. That's because the pilots work for NOAA and the drones have already been purchased by the administration, Aiken said.
NOAA would like to expand the use of drones among its existing customers and even find new ones, Aiken said. The automatic federal budget cuts known as sequestration posed a challenge, Daniels said, because customer agencies have less money to spend on flights.
The drones fly in regions far from MacDill, but at least one potential local use has been suggested - in an emergency and with Federal Aviation Administration approval.
"If the base got devastated by Tropical Storm Andrea," Daniels said, "we could have used the Quadrocopter for damage assessment and to see if there were any dangers that would imperil first responders."