Teams key in on storm fronts, oceanic weather research

By UAS Magazine Staff | October 15, 2014

Unmanned aircraft systems are being thrown into the heart of storms. The University of Colorado-Boulder conducted what is believed to be the first multiple, unmanned aircraft interception of a rush of cold air—known as a gust front—preceding a thunderstorm across the Pawnee National Grassland in Colorado. 

A gust front is a boundary that separates a cold thunderstorm downdraft from warm, humid surface air and can produce damaging wind speeds up to 100 miles per hour.

“We believe this was the first time  multiple unmanned aircraft systems were flown simultaneously to make coordinated measurements of the outflow from an evolving thunderstorm,” said CU-Boulder’s Jack Elston, lead investigator and organizer of the National Science Foundation-sponsored Multi-sUAS Evaluation of  Techniques for Measurement of Atmospheric Properties field experiment.

According to reports, as the gust front approached from the west at Pawnee National Grassland, three UAS teams spread out about a quarter mile from each other and launched three small unmanned aircraft, including a Datahawk and two Skywalkers, which were created by the university. The CU-Boulder UASs had wingspans of less than five feet.

The team was organized by CU-Boulder’s Research and Engineering Center for Unmanned Vehicles with help from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Texas Tech University, Colorado State University, the University of Tübingen in Germany and the Center for Severe Weather Research based in Boulder.

“I’m really looking forward to getting back into the field for more supercell storm research with our meteorologist colleagues,” said CU-Boulder aerospace engineering professor Brian Argrow.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists and partners have also been implementing unmanned aerial systems to help collect weather information both above ground and in the water to help improve hurricane forecasts.

Researchers are sending dropsondes—instruments that are dropped into storms to measure weather data—and unmanned aircraft into places where it would be unsafe for people to gather hurricane and weather data.

NOAA researchers are teaming up with NASA to launch two 115-foot wingspan Global Hawks that will go on several data-collecting missions during the course of the five weeks of the heightened Atlantic hurricane season.

“With the Global Hawk, we can fly farther out over the ocean and get to storms that manned aircraft cannot reach. We can look at storms when they first come off the coast of Africa,” said Robbie Hood, director of NOAA’s UAS program. “Getting this data early in a storm’s life cycle is critical to understanding and predicting its ultimate evolution. Our goal is to begin using unmanned systems to improve weather operations.”

NOAA scientists at the Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory are also taking to the lowest parts of tropical storms just above the surface to gather data using smaller aircraft called Coyotes.

The underwater gliders are capable of venturing to depths of more than 3,300 feet to gather data on how the ocean modifies severe weather. According to the team, the gliders are able to take precise measurements of ocean temperatures, salinity, oxygen levels, and currents, all of which can provide data on the evolution of the temperature and ocean current velocity patterns across the upper layer of the ocean, that can fuel hurricanes.