WASHINGTON - The Earth's atmosphere has layers like a cake, and it follows that forecasting the weather is more accurate if information is coming from a lot of sources and from all of those layers. That is why we have weather satellites, high-flying drones and weather balloons all operating at different altitudes.
Scientists at Oklahoma State University are developing new drones that will help forecasters operate at all different levels and should increase the quality of computer models that are tracking local weather patterns.
Atmospheric measurements provided by radar, weather balloons and towers are good for forecasting a few days ahead, but not so good at predicting dynamic, hour-to-hour weather changes.
Speaking via Skype, aerospace engineer Jamey Jacob says that can be extremely important in places prone to sudden, violent storms.
“Oklahoma is a really good example because even that we are already a very weather-dynamic state, Oklahoma only has two balloon launches a day, one at dawn and one at dusk, from a single location in the state and that is where all the weather forecasting information comes from. So that data is really sparse and it's difficult for meteorologists that are developing these forecasting models to get very good idea about how that weather is changing from these very limited number of data points," said Jacob.
Small weather drones
Scientists at Oklahoma State University — where Jacob is director of the Unmanned Systems Research Institute — are developing small, affordable weather drones that can spend hours in the air taking measurements from many points.
The goal — as Oklahoma University meteorology professor Phillip Chilson explained via Skype — is to give researchers an inexpensive way to better understand storm physics and improve the accuracy of computer model-based forecasting.
“Part of what is going to drive the price down is the scope of the measurements. Whereas some of these larger platforms are focusing on almost transoceanic flights or things of this variety, we are really focusing on the lower atmosphere and so our platforms can by design be much smaller,” he said.
The spherical drone called Atlas can fly, hover, roll on the ground and take to the air again, which makes it ideal for flying in stormy weather. In addition to taking measurements, it can send real-time video of storms, and help search and rescue missions.
“Our real goal is to try to develop systems that really, I do not want to say replace but there may be that possibility of replacing weather balloons, but currently augmenting them, so increasing the capabilities,” said Jacob.
Researchers say there are still many engineering challenges to be met, such as how to make the weather drones automatically stay away from other air traffic. They expect a drone capable of sampling the lower atmosphere may be available in about two years.