Flying lab filled with remote sensing equipment checks health of plants and atmosphere
Flying low over the ground and high through volcanic clouds is all part of the job for an environmental survey research pilot.
In a specially-built plane, scientist Andrew McGrath, from Airborne Research Australia in South Australia, uses remote sensing equipment such as cameras and laser radars to detect the health of flora and the atmosphere.
"A lot of the work of our group is vegetation studies — looking at health, distribution, species types of different plants," Dr McGrath said.
"We also work on urban heat islands, where we fly over cities measuring the temperature and how much of the sunlight is soaked up by the different surfaces of a city."
Dr McGrath said being able to fly a plane was an added bonus to his scientific work.
"It really helps a lot to merge the skills," he said.
"When we collect imagery or any sort of data from the aeroplane, it helps so much to actually be there when that data is collected.
"Not only do you see exactly what's going on in the environment, but you see if there are any instrumental issues. It makes it so much easier to interpret.
"Yesterday morning we flew at dawn with lots of instruments running, including a thermal camera, and we could clearly see distribution of goats across the landscape because the goats are hot, compared with the vegetation."
Dr McGrath said the ECO-diamono plane was a laboratory with wings.
"This plane is actually designed off the drawing board as a sensing platform," he said.
"It's designed to carry implementation, it's got two seats in the cockpit … we normally operate with a pilot flying and a scientist operating the instrumentation and, very commonly, the same person could do either job."
Dr McGrath said features on the experimental plane made it easy to take accurate measurements and good photographs of the ground.
"A lot of our flying is at speeds of 65 knots, so not much more than 100 kilometres an hour," he said.
"It's a lot slower than a lot of survey aeroplanes are able to do.
"One of the design features of this aeroplane is that it has wings a lot like a glider — very long wings, more than a 16-metre wing span — and it's quite safe to sit quite low and slow and manoeuvre still."
Dr McGrath said at times he got requests from airlines to check air quality.
"A few years ago, when a volcano erupted in South America, it sent up a big plume of volcanic ash that went right round the world and came across southern Australia," he said.
"It interrupted air traffic because volcanic ash is not good for jet engines.
"We did some work at that time for Qantas, where we set up this aircraft with a range of meteorological instruments that measure how the air is moving and what the ash content really is.
"We did some flights up to about 20,000 feet over Adelaide, measuring the concentration of these volcanic ash particles."
Dr McGrath said the ash content had not posed a threat to the research institute's plane.
"A piston engine aeroplane like this one has pistons like a car engine," he said.
"It sucks air in through an air filter and that's quite effective in keeping it safe from volcanic ash.
"A jet engine takes in so much air it can't go through an air filter, and the fuel is burned at very high temperatures that actually melt the volcanic ash, and that's really dangerous."