Drones could be the future of weather forecasting

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Tamara Dietrich

Tamara DietrichContact ReporterStaff writer

Meteorology professor and drone researcher Phillip Chilson has a vision, and it goes something like this:

A network of 30-foot mesonet towers is stationed throughout the country to sample air pressure, temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction. There’s also a complementary network of ground stations, both autonomous and manned.

Every hour or two, stations launch drones that fly up a mile or so to take measurements inside the Earth’s energetic and extremely complex boundary layer — a region not easily studied using current technologies. This helps build a vertical profile of the lower atmosphere.

That data is fed back to the ground stations, then ingested into forecast computer models.

When a drone sniffs out an approaching storm or some threatening disturbance, more vehicles will launch — an intelligent swarm of drones that coordinate with each other on how best to interrogate that region of the atmosphere, gathering more data, still feeding the models.

Smaller, expendable winged drones are dropped into the gathering storm, flying around in a controlled manner to collect even more samples before they’re ultimately destroyed.

And all those measurements, combined with others taken by research aircraft, weather balloons or Earth-observing satellites, give meteorologists a fuller and more accurate picture of a weather threat, and people in its path the information they need to best respond to it.

How long before this vision could become reality?

“I’m trying to think how to say this without letting myself get too excited and make a false claim,” said Chilson. “It is going to take a while.”

Chilson has been doing cutting-edge research into drone use for meteorology at the University of Oklahoma for years. But unmanned aerial systems, or UAS, show promise in more than detecting, forecasting and tracking tornadoes, hurricanes or other severe weather.

Their atmospheric data could be used by agri-businesses for better crop management, for instance, or to help firefighters detect shifts in the wind patterns of wildfires and keep out of harm’s way.

And, if consumers ever expect to have two-hour drone delivery one day, it’s vital to know weather conditions close to the surface.

“There are a lot of opportunities,” said Chilson. “We just have to figure out how to grab the tiger by the tail and hang on.”

Chilson is set to talk about the potential for drones in meteorology at a free public presentation 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Virginia Air & Space Center, 600 Settlers Landing Road, in downtown Hampton.

His appearance is part of the monthly Sigma lecture series sponsored by NASA Langley Research Center.

Melody Avery, a research scientist at NASA Langley, recommended Chilson for the series.

“His pioneering work with UAS represents an important emerging technology for tackling the tough problem of getting enough weather data in the lower-most atmosphere, near the Earth’s surface,” Avery said.

His topic is especially timely, she said, because April is Earth Month.

NASA Langley has been working for years to make drone flight safer, not only for automated weather measurements but over populated areas, which would help enable consumer drone deliveries.

Its new Autonomy Lab for Intelligent Flight Technology, or ALIFT, serves as one test bed, and its test ranges include the City Environment for Range Testing of Autonomous Integrated Navigation, or CERTAIN.

In meteorology, drones would fill an important data gap, said Chilson.

Radiosonde instruments launch on weather balloons into the upper atmosphere twice a day, he said, but spend only about a minute in the boundary layer.

And satellites offer data on winds, cloud tops, the location of storms and sea surface temperatures, but have no great capacity for sampling the lower atmosphere.

The National Academy of Sciences, the National Research Council, the National Science Foundation and the National Center for Atmospheric Research are clamoring for better data of the boundary layer, he said.

“They’re not saying how these measurements should be obtained,” said Chilson. “They just say we definitely need these data, we put the charge to the research community to come up with a technology to get them.”

Chilson spent years on ground-based meteorology technologies, from radar to sodar, before landing on drones.

Hurdles still remain — the Federal Aviation Administration is cautious about allowing drones to fly too high or beyond line of sight or over populated areas, for instance.

But the FAA does offer waivers for research, and his university partnered with Oklahoma State University and the universities of Kentucky and Nebraska on a $6 million, four-year project to develop ways for meteorologists to use UAS.

“They’re kind of stretching their wings a little bit and going outside of their comfort zone, but in very regulated airspaces,” Chilson of the FAA.

Oklahoma, Kentucky and New York already have mesonet towers distributed across their states that he says could serve as models for a national network.

“Who knows what might evolve in the next five years,” Chilson said. “But right now I’m hanging a lot of hope on getting much more measurements of our lower atmosphere using this technology. We are very much in the pioneering stages of figuring out how we can take this to the next level.”

Tamara Dietrich, 757-247-7892, tdietrich@dailypress.com, DP_Dietrich

Copyright © 2019, Daily Press

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