For the last week, I’ve been researching the use of drones in weather research and forecasting. I came across this really good article from Weatherwise Magazine:
UAVs for weather research aren’t being used exclusively for hurricanes and other cyclonic storms, however. They are proving their utility in a full spectrum of atmospheric science research, particularly in remote areas and regions of meteorological extremes. Sharon Corona, of AAI, describes an Aerosonde mission in Terra Nova Bay, Antarctica. “The Aerosonde Mark 4 flew in temperatures as cold as −38°C (−36.4°F), and remained aloft up to 17 hours straight.” The mission’s focus was to observe the influence of katabatic winds on the Antarctic coast to help determine what, if any, influence these winds have on global climate. She adds, “For this mission the Aerosonde aircraft were fitted with meteorological instruments to measure pressure, temperature, relative humidity, winds, net radiation, surface temperature, and ice thickness.” Some of the sensors included a laser surface profiler, surface temperature sensor, and among others, a dropsonde system, which is a device equipped with a GPS and atmospheric sensors that is dropped from an aircraft to gather and transmit atmospheric profile data during its descent. Corona concludes that while the aircraft and sensors were deployed into a high risk environment, “The operators remained safe in controlled conditions out of harm’s way.” Because the system employed satellite communication, operators could control the aircraft beyond line-of-sight.
Some other meteorological applications for which UAVs have been recently used include collecting high-altitude samples of ozone, carbon dioxide, and other airborne chemicals and particulate matter; observation of forest fires; and cloud mapping, to name a few. As engineers continue to improve engine performance and efficiency, refine flight control and stabilization systems, and enhance high-resolution still and video cameras and environmental sensors—and as these components become cheaper—ever more of the heavy-lift work of airborne atmospheric research will be carried by UAVs. “It’s all about filling in data gaps where we can’t currently gather info,” states Lieutenant Commander Phil Eastman, NOAA Aircraft Operations Center’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems officer. “This is as described [with the Aerosonde in Ophelia] at low level in storms but also in regions where we can’t get an asset due to range issues such as the Bering Sea, the middle of the Pacific, the Arctic Ocean, and so on.” He then notes a limitation of aerial-based atmospheric research rooted not in safety, but in raw logistics, and explains how UAVs provide a solution: “We can’t always get the right type of aircraft into certain places because there isn’t anywhere to get fuel. UAS [unmanned aircraft systems] have amazing endurance numbers that can get to these places and back safely.”
In tornado research, a University of Colorado based team with the VORTEX 2 (Verification of the Origins of Rotation in Tornadoes Experiment) project had developed a drone designed to fly into super-cell thunderstorms (which are the kind of storms that can produce tornadoes.)
If you know of any weather-related research using robots and drones, let us know on Twitter @RobotCentral.