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Drones could revolutionize weather forecasts, but must overcome safety concerns

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Robotic vehicles unleashed into the atmosphere and oceans, commonly known as drones, may uncover meteorological secrets critical to improving weather forecasts.

Potentially, they could sample the atmosphere in difficult to reach, remote locations where weather data is scarce.  The data received could then be integrated into prediction models – improving their resolution and reliability.

Research facilities at multiple agencies and Universities have been testing methods for using drones in meteorological data collection for many years, but operational drones for weather analysis have only been put into practice in the last few years.   According to NASA, the agency’s Global Hawk drone made “the first ever high-altitude flyover of a tropical cyclone with a UAS (unmanned aircraft system).”

That 2010 flyover of a remnant hurricane, Tropical Storm Frank at the time, was still a test mission for the Global Hawk drone.  Unlike the hurricane hunters who risk their own safety by flying directly through strong tropical cyclones, drones can gather similar storm data over ocean basins unmanned.

More recently, the Global Hawk drone flew into Tropical Storm Nadine in the east Atlantic ocean from Wallops Island, Va. during the 2013 Atlantic hurricane season.  The  maximum flight duration of piloted aircraft is insufficient to cross the Atlantic and back, while also spending several hours sampling the environment around a storm.

Drones have the potential to fly into storm systems aside from hurricanes.  The Los Angeles Times describes how Oklahoma State researchers have been developing drones capable of withstanding the high winds from tornadoes. “Remotely controlled by a pilot, the small aircraft weigh as much as 55 pounds and can cost $10,000 to $100,000, depending on the types of technology involved,” the Times piece says. “Sensors would collect data on temperature, humidity and pressure while intercepting a storm — crucial information in tornado prediction.”

Several previous attempts have been made to collect direct atmospheric readings inside tornadic  storms.  To this day, too few direct measurements of the tornado environment have been attained to study precisely how and when a twister may form.  Development of meteorological drones capable of gathering data inside severe storms would allow researchers to easily acquire the data they have long yearned for.

Locally, the University of Virginia has also been testing drones to offer a supplement to weather balloons for atmospheric sounding measurements at low levels of the atmosphere, as discussed on the Smartdrones website and in the video below.

From the air to the sea, the website, Defense One writes about how the U.S. Navy has plans to use underwater submarine drones to gather marine observations to improve overall understandings of the world’s oceans.  Their mission is to eventually extend weather forecasts to 90 days by combining analyses of the air, sea, and land interactions into single multi-purpose models rather than the current individually specialized models.

Awareness of risks must be considered when operating drones.  There is the risk of losing drones that fail over the ocean.  For example, the violent winds of a hurricane could throw  a drone off its designated travel path.

Reuters reports that a drone recently crashed in South Korea on March 31, but the location where it came from was unknown.  If a drone were to malfunction while traveling over a large crowd, it would create obvious safety concerns.

Commercial drones may eventually be developed for business practices.  The major online retailer Amazon has already introduced plans to offer shipping deliveries by drones.  Such commercially operated drones could be especially vulnerable to weather systems because of the expansive geography they would have to cover.

The Federal Aviation Administration strictly enforces drones to ensure public safety.  Drone testing has expanded substantially over the years and each new drone in the sky adds increased risks of accidental injuries.  The FAA Fact Sheet for Unmanned Aircraft Systems describes how drones currently operating have been providing assistance for firefighting, disaster relief, search and rescue, law enforcement, border patrol, military training and testing and evaluation.  If successfully and safely tested, future drones approved by the FAA would also add new tools for improving weather forecasting analyses.

The author, Brendan Richardson, is a Capital Weather Gang intern