Guest post by Emily Folk
Accuracy in weather forecasts is crucial and also frequently difficult to obtain. This is in part because weather is a chaotic, always-changing system — but it’s also because high-quality and up-to-date atmospheric data is hard to gather. This is especially true of the boundary layer, or the lowest level of the atmosphere. Despite being so close to Earth, can be hard to gather accurate measurements on.
To collect this information, the U.S. Weather Service primarily uses weather balloons outfitted with special sensors that are released twice a day, every day, from more than 900 locations around the world. These balloons provide valuable data, but the cost and infrastructure needed to launch them limits their utility somewhat. They only provide new information twice a day, and only within a range of one of those 900 locations — just 92 of which are in the U.S. and its territories.
There are alternatives — like satellites and special weather planes — but they all have limitations that have meteorologists looking for new tools. Recent developments in unmanned aerial vehicle technology now has meteorologists seriously considering drones for weather prediction.
Why Weather Prediction Drones May Beat the Alternatives
Planes can provide additional information on atmospheric conditions. However, they’re expensive to fly and typically reserved for major weather events like hurricanes and powerful tropical storms. Frequent updates are necessary to provide people who may be affected with the best predictions possible.
Data from satellites — typically information on water vapor in the atmosphere — can also bolster weather predictions. This information isn’t detailed, however — and the recent allocation of additional spectrum for 5G may have made these satellites slightly less effective at collecting that information.
Drones have emerged as a possible alternative because they can be deployed at any time, outfitted with different sensors and piloted based on the information that a given weather station needs to collect. Unlike weather balloons, they can also be used more than a few times. Because these drones have a pilot, there may be less of a chance that sensors or other valuable equipment is lost or damaged.
Depending on budget and staff availability, these drones could be launched much more frequently than balloons — in the hopes of one meteorology professor, Phillip Chilson of the University of Oklahoma, as frequently as once every hour.
These drones, coupled with a network of freestanding meteorological towers, which use sensors to record weather data — like wind speed and direction — could provide weather prediction algorithms on the ground with information to create highly accurate forecasts.
Weather stations could also launch these drones whenever there are signs of a disturbance in the upper atmosphere, like a storm or front. In the future, with the development of improved, artificial intelligence-powered navigation technology, the drones may even be able to launch and pilot themselves. As a result, forecasters could have round-the-clock updates with additional information in the case of major weather events.
Early Experiments With Weather Prediction Drones
While the autonomous swarms of weather-sensing drones are still just an idea, some weather stations are already using drones in a limited capacity to gather atmospheric data.
For example, scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration began using drones in 2017 to collect weather data. In the scientists’ experiments, the drones were able to fly as high as 3,500 feet in the air. At that height, they were able to gather new information that will provide scientists with a better understanding of how the boundary layer works. This could potentially lead to more accurate forecasting models.
Scientists have also used drones to collect valuable information on major weather events. During Hurricanes Maria and Michael, a team of hurricane hunters used drones to collect “never-before-seen data” from inside the boundary layer of the hurricanes. While the drones didn’t return to home base, the data they collected may help meteorologists better predict if or when a hurricane will intensify.
Improving Weather Forecasts With Drone Technology
While drones aren’t in widespread use yet, these early experiments suggest a bright future for the technology in weather prediction. As scientists gain more experience with weather prediction drones — and as autonomous drone technology improves — it may become more and more common to see drones in day-to-day use at weather stations.
Emily is a green tech writer who covers topics in renewable energy and sustainable design. You can read more of her work on her blog, Conservation Folks.