New helicopter hovers into university’s hands

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The Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science (RSMAS) made a unique purchase this holiday season: a helicopter.

The Airbus helicopter will be transformed into a research vessel to make scientific observations, such as physical, chemical and biological processes that occur near the Earth’s surface. The helicopter was acquired in December, in part with funding from a $700,000 grant from the Batchelor Foundation.

The helicopter observation platform (HOP) is the first of its kind and could take flight as soon as this summer. Leading the project, Kenny Broad, chair of the marine affairs and policy program, and Roni Avissar, RSMAS dean, will pilot the HOP during expeditions.

“It’s probably the most exciting thing that I’ve seen so far because it is a novel approach and, undoubtedly, it will provide answers to major scientific issues that we have not been able to address so far,” Avissar said.

Broad said the helicopter can measure all sorts of processes important for understanding our climate, such as absorption of carbon dioxide by plants and the ocean, and how life on earth functions. It will be used to explore remote areas as well.

The HOP is modeled after a prototype at Duke University, where Avissar chaired the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering before coming to the University of Miami.

“I proposed at that time to equip a helicopter with instruments and fly close to the ground’s surface low and slow in the atmosphere,” he said.

The HOP at UM will be like no other.

“Helicopters are used in the research. However, transforming a full helicopter to make it dedicated to full research is very unique and the first worldwide,” he said.

Much like with the research catamaran at RSMAS, excursions using the HOP will be dependent on funding from grants received from foundations as well as federal and state government.

Avissar submitted a grant application to NASA for about $28 million Friday that proposes using the HOP to revolutionize the way that carbon balance is measured in the United States.

“When it comes to predictions of climate change, there is still a major unknown as to how much carbon is being absorbed,” he said. “It remains a big, big project, and we have proposed to NASA a new approach based on the flexibility and uniqueness of the helicopter.”

The helicopter purchased by RSMAS has not yet been outfitted with all of the instruments required to transform it into the observation platform

“We are in the process of selecting the different navigation, communication, autopilot components, and painting that is going to go on that helicopter,” he said.

Once the ‘U’ logo finally adorns the HOP, it will be parked at a nearby airport. And at that point, both undergraduate and graduate students can expect to reap the benefits of this innovative resource.

“Students will definitely be involved in the research, and there are many ways,” Broad said.

Analyzing the data collected by the HOP or even going on the expeditions, in certain cases, are two examples.

“Something I would like to see is the university offering pilot training to students when not being used for research projects,” said sophomore Rick Thompson, who is majoring in marine science and geology.

Although its primary purpose is for environmental and atmospheric research, Avissar foresees the HOP also being used by the College of Engineering and Miller School of Medicine.

“I hope and anticipate that it will help us make additional connections with the medical school as well as engineering,” he said. “We will use it as the bridging instrument to make our connections with our colleagues across the university.”

Senior Emily Northrop, who is majoring in marine science and geology, said she is interested to see how the helicopter can be used for human health studies. She thinks that combined with the RSMAS wind tunnel, which can simulate hurricane winds, this is a huge step for the school.

“This, alongside the wind tunnel, must have other oceanographic institutions talking,” she said.

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Lyssa Goldberg is online editor of The Miami Hurricane. She is a senior majoring in journalism and political science with a minor in math. She has interned at Mashable and the Miami New Times, and her work has also been featured in The Huffington Post.

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