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Using Drones to Help Improve Weather Forecasts

Article and Figures Provided By: Bruce Baker (ATDD Division Director)

Small Unmanned Aerial Systems (sUAS), commonly referred to as drones, are becoming widely used for many different applications. One of these applications is to make measurements of the lowest layer of the Earth’s atmosphere in what scientists refer to as the boundary layer. Scientists are now using drones to gather critical information on how temperature, moisture, and wind evolve within the boundary layer under different weather conditions. Doing this helps scientists to better understand the atmosphere, ultimately leading to improvements in weather forecast models used by NOAA’s National Weather Service.

Before ATDD’s drones could confidently be used to collect critical measurements, the weather sensors selected for use on them had to be evaluated to ensure their accuracy to provide the necessary data. Confirming the sensors’ validity required careful testing in the laboratory, comparing drone measurements with other more traditional weather observing platforms such as surface weather stations and instrumented weather balloons.

Confidence in measurements coming from its drones, allow scientists to utilize the drones in two ways.  The first is through short-term field studies, which enable scientists to focus on specific regions of the U.S., aim to examine how Earth’s land surface affects weather patterns.  In the past two years, ATDD’s scientists have participated in several of these field studies. The aim of the field studies is to study how Earth’s land surface affects weather patterns and evaluating how that information can be used in weather and climate models. Secondly, scientists use drones for routine vertical profiles (Figure 1). Scientists were recently given permission to operate its drones up to 3,500 feet above ground level. Flying drones to this altitude enables scientists to sample small details in temperature, moisture, and wind within the boundary layer. The resulting measurements help scientists evaluate how well current weather forecast models represent the atmosphere which is essential for identifying and correcting errors in weather forecast models. ATDD’s scientists are also collaborating with forecasters from local weather service forecast offices, providing drone-collected data that assists meteorologists in making their forecasts.

Fig 1. A drone flies near a surface weather station during a recent field campaign in Wisconsin. Credit NOAA

Drones have played a critical role in data collection, enabling unprecedented access to vital information on temperature, moisture, wind, and pressure in a region of the atmosphere has historically been difficult to sample by other weather observing platforms.

NOAA’s UAS Program Office supports ATDD’s drone measurement activities. The team continues to provide tangible examples of how scientists are using drones to benefit society. To re-cap, using drones during field studies helps scientists better understand how the land surface affects weather patterns, which ultimately leads to improvements in weather forecasts. In addition, providing drone-collected data (Figure 2) to local forecast offices is enabling weather forecasters to make better-informed forecasting decisions which can be critical to achieving NOAA’s mission to save lives and protect property.

Fig 2. The Meteodrone is one type of small drone scientists are using to measure the atmosphere. Credit: NOAA