UAS collaboration aims at increasing snowpack in Nevada mountains

By Patrick C. Miller | January 28, 2016

Using unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to increase snowpack in the Lake Tahoe region of Nevada will be part of a weather modification research project led by the Desert Research Institute (DRI).

The project—supported by Nevada’s Knowledge Fund—combines more than 30 years of DRI weather modification research and expertise with Reno-based Drone America’s experience in aerospace manufacturing and flight operations. In addition, AviSight of Las Vegas will provide unmanned aerial data services.

"This project is a key part of helping Nevada address the ongoing drought and explore innovative solutions for natural-resource challenges such as augmenting our regional water supply," said Adam Watts, lead scientist and a DRI assistant research professor who has expertise in UAS applications for ecological and natural-resources applications.

The project will develop and test Drone America’s latest UAS technologies for cloud seeding operations across the Lake Tahoe Basin and Truckee River watershed where DRI has conducted ground-based winter cloud seeding operations for more than 30 years.

According to DRI, on average, its cloud seeding program adds approximately 14,000 acre-feet—4.5 billion gallons—of water to the Truckee River watershed’s snowpack each winter season.

Frank McDonough, lead forecaster and manager of the DRI Weather Modification Program, said that with local support from the Truckee Meadows Water Authority (TMWA) and the Western Regional Water Commission (WRWC), DRI currently conducts cloud seeding using ground-based generators to increase the drought resilience of municipalities and agricultural operations.

DRI has not used manned aircraft for cloud seeding operations for the past two decades because of the high costs and associated risks.

“When used correctly, airborne cloud seeding platforms offer great potential to increase the number of storms that can be seeded, thus helping to increase the local snowpack and resulting river flows,” Watts said.

He added that UAS could be deployed faster and more frequently to increase the effectiveness and decrease the costs and risks associated with manned airborne cloud seeding.

The project will use two Drone America UAS platforms—the DAx8 multi-rotor aircraft and the Savant fixed-wing aircraft. The DAx8 can carry payloads, sensors and cameras while the Savant—which weights less than 55 pounds—is designed for commercial applications.

Drone America will also provide experienced flight operations teams, consisting of air vehicle operators, payload operators, and technicians. The team has more than 21,000 of combined flight hours ranging from small UAS to commercial airliners.

“We have been working with the DRI since 2013 on ways to utilize our UAS platforms to make aerial cloud seeding operations safer and more effective,” said Mike Richards, Drone America president and CEO.

AviSight will coordinate and manage the project’s airspace access with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and lead business development efforts to expand test and deployments in Nevada and surrounding states.


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