Chasing Precipitation

Universities in Oklahoma are using unmanned aerial systems to predict severe weather.

When a storm is approaching every minute counts. Early detection is crucial. As home to the National Weather Center and one of the most respected schools for meteorology in the nation, Oklahoma knows a thing or two about weather research. Now, researchers are preparing to take that knowledge even further.

The National Science Foundation recently provided a $6 million grant to CLOUD MAP (Collaboration Leading Operation Unmanned
Development for Meteorology and Atmospheric Physics), to conduct Unmanned Aerial Systems research in the state of Oklahoma and other states.

CLOUD MAP is a four-year, four-university collaboration to develop capabilities that will allow meteorologists to use unmanned aircraft as a common, useful everyday tool. The partnership is led by Oklahoma State University (OSU) and partners include the University of Oklahoma (OU), The University of Kentucky and the University of Nebraska.

“We have been exploring ways of doing sampling of the atmosphere using small UASs for many years now,” says Phillip Chilson, professor, School of Meteorology & Advanced Radar Research Center, OU. “It’s just been difficult to gain access into the airspace until recently.”

For the most part, meteorologists rely on radar and ground-based instruments that are unable to collect the necessary data. Though scientists have used large UASs to study hurricanes, high costs prohibit widespread study of atmospheric conditions and the vehicles aren’t designed to fly at low altitudes, where meteorologists say storms are born.

“The towers that we have are not particularly high enough to penetrate the depths of the atmosphere that we need,” says Chilson. “Most of our motion-sensing devices can’t always detect the atmosphere when there’s no precipitation. Or if we can detect it, it’s expensive, so finally we have this solution and we can send out small UAVs to sample the atmosphere.”

The partner organizations have four years to demonstrate that UASs can have a strong impact on weather forecasting. Unfortunately, there are still a lot of unknowns that scientists at OU and OSU are working to uncover. The process to collect the data is one of those unknown factors.

“For example, if at a certain point in time we were to have independent stations that were to release small UAV’s into the atmosphere, collect data and land, how close to space must the stations be in order to have an impact on the lower forecast models? How long do they need to monitor the atmosphere? There’s a lot of engineering and logistical challenges that need to be resolved,” says Chilson. “That’s where OU comes in because we have the National Severe Storm Laboratory. It’s a very exciting time.”

“UASs are well-suited for the lower atmosphere, namely the lower boundary layer that has a large impact on the atmosphere and where much of the weather phenomena begins,” says Dr. Jamey Jacob, director, Unmanned Systems Research Institute, OSU. The boundary layer’s proximity to the ground and its transient nature are what limits the technology that can be used, according to Jacob.

OSU is in the first six months of the four-year project and they have developed prototype systems to measure significant meteorological parameters using unmanned aircraft, which will be evaluated in a joint campaign this summer. But UAS research is going beyond just weather research.

The U.S. Small Business Administration also awarded a $500,000 Cluster Initiative contract for the area’s Unmanned Aerial System sector as part of the Oklahoma/South Kansas proposal. It presents a great opportunity to work collaboratively using new resources to build on past success. The $500,000 proposal has up to four additional years of renewal at the same amount and will be managed by Development Capital Networks with guidance from the Oklahoma UAS Council.

The Oklahoma/South Kansas proposal includes 18 measurable goals, such as attracting technologies from federal labs and universities; supporting a variety of national, regional and local events and attracting venture capital and angel investors and connecting them with entrepreneurs. Funds for UAS research are presenting new opportunities at every turn.

“This data will be used to improve our understanding and develop more accurate forecasting models in the future,” says Jacob. “This project will save lives and property by improving our understanding of the atmosphere and eventually providing weather forecasts with increased accuracy.”

Image by Robert H. Taylor

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