OSU leading UAS research on lower atmosphere, weather

By Ann Bailey | October 29, 2015

Research teams led by Oklahoma State University aim to make unmanned aerial systems an instrumental part of weather forecasting.

Researchers at OSU, together with teams at the University of Oklahoma, University of Kentucky and University of Nebraska-Lincoln are studying ways to develop UAS weather forecasting through atmospheric physics. The National Science Foundation awarded the universities a $6 million grant in August 2015. The research will be conducted during the next four years and more than a dozen faculty members and their students will work on the project.

The goal of the project team members, who include computer scientists, engineers and meteorologists, is to develop small, affordable unmanned aerial systems that can be used to monitor atmospheric conditions. The project also will build up a knowledge base that can be used by a variety of public organizations, including the National Weather Service and the Federal Aviation Administration, and by private companies.

The National Science Foundation grant money will assist the Oklahoma universities in continuing research that is under way, said Phillip Chilson, a University of Oklahoma meteorology professor and project researcher.

“This is a way we can jumpstart some of the efforts we have been moving toward,” Chilson said. “We have momentum going into it.”

Although, people tend to think of the atmosphere as the blue sky above, there also is a lot of activity going on in the lower atmosphere near the Earth’s surface or lower boundary, Chilson said. 

Field crops, rocks and other objects create energy which eventually reaches the upper atmosphere, he noted. Because of the lower atmosphere’s nearness to the Earth’s surface and its temporary nature, up until now, technology has not been available to provide detailed measurement.

It is too dangerous, for example, for airplanes to fly so close to the ground and there is a limit to what radar can measure.

“This region of the atmosphere, there is so much more to it than can meet the eye and that means so much for forecasting, is under-sampled,” Chilson said.

The development of a UAS system that will improve weather forecasting is something FAA officials are interested in, said Jamey Jacob, Oklahoma State University professor of mechanical and  aerospace engineering and lead project investigator. Improved forecasting through UAV use would result in fewer delays because the FAA could divert air traffic around storms, he said..

“Someday your flight may not be late because of the technology,” Jacob said.

“I think it is kind of the lead edge of a very promising future,” Chilson said.

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