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The first drone to collect weather data in the United States could launch this fall

All it takes is a patch of fog to ruin Thomas Swoyer’s day.

Swoyer operates the first and only fully operational hub for research, testing, and development of commercial drones in the United States, from those used for military reconnaissance to those that may one day drop packages on your doorstep.

But local weather events like fog, ice, low clouds or thunderstorms can suddenly pose risks to flights. In fact, about 30% of drone flights from Swoyer’s company, Grand Sky, in Grand Forks, ND, are canceled due to weather conditions.

“If I’m going to deliver a package 20 miles down the road, I need to know what I’m flying in, and weather is my number one risk,” Swoyer said.

Canceled flights cost money, waste man hours, slow research, and sometimes even delay critical military missions.

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Now, Grand Sky is looking to better predict weather conditions for its drone flights. The solution? Use another drone.

Pending government approval, the “Meteodrone” will launch this fall and will be the first drone to record weather data on operationally used land in the United States. The collected data would then be fed into computer models to improve predictions of drone flight operations.

The Meteodrone is not your average drone. It is filled with small meteorological instruments, which can measure temperature, dew point, relative humidity, wind speed and pressure. An onboard camera can capture valuable images as storm systems develop and progress.

It is also designed to withstand a range of severe weather conditions, armed with safety features like heated propellers to prevent icing and an emergency parachute. A pilot can remotely launch the drone into the atmosphere and send it up to 20,000 feet, sampling the atmosphere both ascending and descending in a straight line.

“The advantage of the meteorrone here is being able to get these constant and frequent profiles, especially when interesting or important weather events are happening,” said Brad Guay, meteorologist at Meteomaticsthe company that creates the technology.

All collected the data will feed into a high-resolution computer model for the area around Grand Forks Air Force Base.

Right now, “the data is not granular enough. We just don’t have enough data. Our models are not enough,” said Don Berchoff, co-founder and CEO of TruWeather Solutions, which will provide decision support once the high-resolution modeling is complete.

The data will also reveal previously poorly understood weather patterns between ground and flight level, critical for drone flights across the country.

The Meteodrone will be new to the United States, but it is already in regular use in Switzerland. Fifteen Meteodrone stations are located across the European country, collecting data on the atmosphere around the Alps.

“We’ve completed over 20,000 vertical profiles, thousands of flight hours,” said Martin Fengler, founder of weather forecasting service Meteomatics. In collaboration with the Federal Office of Meteorology and Climatology, Meteomatics is working on high-resolution data collection and modeling in Switzerland.

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Fengler first became interested in the idea of ​​using drones for weather collection a decade ago in Germany, when he was working toward his private pilot’s license. “I had never experienced bad weather myself,” he said of his weather before becoming a pilot. But many of his drones training flights were disrupted by poorly forecast heights of fog or cloud. He started thinking about how he could fill the data gap in that key part of the atmosphere, where so much activity takes place.

And there are many gaps to fill.

In large states like North Dakota, surface weather stations, radar towers and balloon launch sites are widely spaced and leave huge blind spots.

Other areas use outdated or broken instruments. The weather balloon launch site in Chatham, Massachusetts, the only site in the six-state area, closed last fall due to coastal erosion and has yet to be replaced. The National Weather Service says it hopes to have a new site finalized by the end of this summer, but until then critical data is being missed that could impact computer modeling and forecast performance. .

Grand Sky is investing just under $1 million in this new technology, but Swoyer thinks it’s worth it.

With better data collection from the Meteodrone and more accurate high-resolution weather models, he hopes a launch could simply be delayed for a few hours, rather than canceled outright.

“If I can get 10% more flying hours, it pays for itself in the first year,” Swoyer said. “The real value for me is more flight time, more uptime, more mission time.”

For Berchoff, the potential for detecting icing with the Meteodrone is particularly exciting.

Icing is incredibly difficult to predict and extremely dangerous. It’s described as one of the biggest risks to drone flight, as ice buildup on the wings can have a huge impact on the plane’s ability to stay aloft.

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“Icing is key here. We’re going to install this thing to see if there’s any icing,” he says of the company’s plan to regularly sample the lower atmosphere.

Fengler expects drone technology to continue to evolve rapidly in the coming years.

“In about 2 to 3 years, we will see drones capable of flying 10 kilometers,” he predicts.

Berchoff says drones offer “the best business case ever for detecting micro-weather.”

He’s optimistic that the North Dakota data is just the start of a larger web for weather drone sampling data entirely missed by forecasters so far.

Michael Page is a Boston-based Certified Broadcast Meteorologist with over a decade of experience covering weather, environment, and science news.