Better knowledge of the atmosphere, ocean and land are needed by a wide range of users spanning the scientific, civil and defense communities. Observations to provide this knowledge will require aerial systems with greater operational flexibility and lower life-cycle costs than are currently available. Persistent monitoring of severe storms, sampling and measurements of the Earth’s carbon cycle, wildfire monitoring/management, crop assessments, ozone and polar ice
changes, and natural disaster response (communications and surveillance) are but a few applications where autonomous aerial observations can effectively augment existing measurement systems. User driven capabilities include high altitude, long range, long-loiter (days/weeks), smaller deployable sensor-ships for in-situ sampling, and sensors providing data with spectral bandwidth and high temporal and three-dimensional spatial resolution. Starting with user
needs and considering all elements and activities required to acquire the needed observations leads to the definition of autonomous aerial observation systems (AAOS) that can significantly complement and extend the current Earth observation capability. In this approach, UAVs are viewed as only one, albeit important, element in a mission system and overall cost and performance for the user are the critical success factors. To better understand and meet the challenges of developing such AAOSs, a systems oriented multi-dimensional analysis has been performed that illuminates the enabling and high payoff investments that best address the needs of scientific, civil, and defense users of Earth observations. The analysis further identifies technology gaps and serves to illustrate how investments in a range
of mission subsystems together can enable a new class of Earth observations.