Aerial vehicles fill a unique planetary science measurement gap, that of regional-scale, near-surface observation, while providing a fresh perspective for potential discovery. Aerial vehicles used in planetary exploration bridge the scale and resolution measurement gaps between orbiters (global perspective with limited spatial resolution) and landers (local perspective with high spatial resolution) thus complementing and extending orbital and landed measurements. Planetary aerial vehicles can also survey scientifically interesting terrain that is inaccessible or hazardous to landed missions. The use of aerial assets for performing observations on Mars, Titan, or Venus will enable direct measurements and direct follow-ons to recent discoveries. Aerial vehicles can be used for remote sensing of the interior, surface and atmosphere of Mars, Venus and Titan. Types of aerial vehicles considered are airplane “heavier than air” and airships and balloons “lighter than air.” Interdependencies between the science measurements, science goals and objectives, and platform implementation illustrate how the proper balance of science, engineering, and cost, can be achieved to allow for a successful mission. Classification of measurement types along with how those measurements resolve science questions and how these instruments are accommodated within the mission context are discussed.
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.