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Whirling Wonder: RSMAS Acquires New Flying Laboratory

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    By Marie Guma-Diaz
    UM News 

    CORAL GABLES, Fla. (January 06, 2014) — The University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science (RSMAS) is adding to its fleet of specialized research vessels with its latest acquisition – a helicopter equipped with state-of-the-art technology that converts a commercial aircraft into a flying scientific laboratory.

    This one-of-a-kind Helicopter Observation Platform (HOP) will allow scientists to obtain vital information on environmental processes and mechanisms that affect our climate and impact human health.

    “HOP will support the research missions of University of Miami (UM) scientists and a host of other research institutions around the world by improving our understanding of the Earth’s environment – in particular the Earth’s surface, whether marine or continental, and the thin atmospheric boundary layer above it, where much of the action for the climate system is taking place,” said Roni Avissar, dean of UM’s Rosenstiel School and an experienced helicopter pilot.

    “This is a major advance for UM’s recently launched Exploration Science program whose mission is to broaden interest in field-based scientific research,” said Kenny Broad, director of UM’s Leonard and Jayne Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy and Chair of Marine Affairs and Policy at RSMAS. He and Avissar will lead this project and will serve as HOP pilots during scientific missions and expeditions.

    The novel aircraft, which is based on a commercial Airbus Helicopter AS350B3e, is being transformed to include advanced technology for studying key physical, chemical and biological processes near the Earth’s surface.

    “No other aircraft offers the flexibility of a helicopter, in terms of payload, maneuverability and safety. HOP will uniquely fill an important gap in research airborne observations,” said Avissar.

    HOP will also facilitate new observations of seasonal events, including Saharan dust storms. The dust, swept up by strong winds in Africa, travels thousands of miles across the Atlantic carrying microbes and fine airborne particles that affect air quality. The dust particles also have an impact on marine ecosystems, the climate and hurricane formation.

    The new aircraft will complement an array of cutting-edge research resources at RSMAS, including the F.G. Walton Smith, an advanced research catamaran designed for tropical oceanography; the Center for Southeastern Tropical Advanced Remote Sensing (CSTARS) a real-time, high-resolution satellite imagery facility; and the new one-of-a-kind SUSTAIN (SUrge-STructure-Atmosphere INteraction) research facility that will open for research and education in Spring 2014. Currently under final construction steps, the facility will be the only place in the world with a wind-wave-storm surge simulator capable of generating Category 5 hurricane-force winds in a 3D test environment.

    RSMAS has been involved in the engineering, building and testing process of the technological innovations made to the helicopter. Procurement of the Airbus Helicopter was funded by the Batchelor Foundation, which provided nearly half of its acquisition cost through a challenge grant. The G. Unger Vetlessen Foundation and an anonymous donor contributed a significant portion of the matching funds.

    Established in 1990, the Batchelor Foundation supports numerous programs, organizations and projects benefiting the environment, including research and education programs and those focused on animals, wildlife and natural resources.

    The G. Unger Vetlessen Foundation voluntarily aids and contributes to religious, charitable, scientific, literary, and educational purposes throughout the world.

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