Amazon may have the wrong use for the robotic remote controlled vehicles, commonly called drones, but they have the right idea. Research facilities at multiple agencies and Universities are testing how drones can collect meteorological data around the world that would ultimately help in forecasting. More importantly, they could sample the atmosphere in hard to reach, remote locations where weather data is impossible to get. The seemingly never ending Atlantic and Pacific Oceans would be a great place to start.
The NASA Global Hawk Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS)
The computer forecasting models get all of their data from surface locations worldwide, as well as with weather balloon launches at strategic locations. But we are unable to sample much of the atmosphere because 70% of the globe is covered by water, where no people or structures can survive. So collecting viable data to use in these forecasting models has essentially been holding us back from fine tuning an ever changing forecast for the last half century. But these drones might be able to provide additional data, especially in key situations like potential land falling hurricanes, or the “polar vortexes” that make their way toward the U.S.This photo of Tropical Storm Frank was taken from the HDVis camera on the underside of the Global Hawk aircraft on Saturday, Aug. 28, at 5:07 p.m. EDT as the aircraft approached Frank for the second time. The Global Hawk captured this photo from an altitude of 60,000 ft. (about 11.4 miles) (NASA/NOAA)
So last summer, NASA flew the Global Hawk drone into Tropical Storm Nadine in the east Atlantic. The maximum flight duration of the current piloted aircraft known as the “Hurricane Hunter” is insufficient to cross the Atlantic and back, while also spending several hours sampling the environment around the storm. But the Global Hawk can fly at altitudes above 50,000 feet and stay airborne for over 30 hours. That makes these drones ideal for investigating these natural phenomenon AND does it without putting the pilots and staff on board a plane in harm’s way.NASA’s Global Hawk drone spent 11 hours collecting data over tropical storm Nadine in the Eastern Atlantic Ocean on Sept. 23, 2013. The image shows the Global Hawk (red dot) returning to Wallops. (NASA Wallops)
These aren’t the only ways drones are being tested against Mother Nature. The Los Angeles Times reports that Oklahoma State researchers are developing a drone capable of withstanding the high winds from tornadoes, with several test flights already conducted.
The University of Virginia is involved as well conducting tests to develop a drone that will supplement those weather balloon launches I mentioned above, aiding them in collecting atmospheric soundings at low levels of the atmosphere.
Ultimately, it will likely be the cost of these unmanned vehicles that will hold current research and roll out back for a while. Current estimates show that each one, depending on its use and capabilities, could cost more than a quarter million dollars. Might be a small price to pay for further understanding of our atmosphere and ultimately saving lives. There are currently no estimates on when these drones could hit the market.Some of the information in this article is courtesy of the Washington Post