In the United States and across the globe, predicting weather eight to 10 days in the future is notoriously unreliable. That’s because the data are notoriously unreliable.
That far ahead might not sound like a huge deal, but it is for someone who relies on weather data for their livelihood, like a farmer who needs to know when to plant his harvest, or a pilot who needs it to create potential flight plans.
But on an even broader scale, weather data are instrumental to how we understand the future of climate change, particularly how scientists can better learn about the unprecedented hurricanes, wildfires, droughts and heat waves the planet is experiencing.
Some of the gaps in U.S. weather data are simply because there’s a large distance between weather monitoring stations and infrastructure in less populated areas, or outdated or broken instruments being used in others.
For example, the National Weather Service Upper Air Station in Chatham, Massachusetts, decommissioned the only weather balloon launch site in the region in April 2021 because of significant erosion on the bluff where it was located. That means important data are not being collected there, which impacts the accuracy of computer modeling and weather forecasts.
There is no one answer, but the Swiss company Meteomatics thinks it might have one new instrument to help: a weather drone. Its drone, Meteodrone, is still awaiting government approval, but when it gets the go-ahead, it will be the first drone in the United States to help collect vital weather data.
What Is a Weather Drone?
Weather drones are just that: drones designed specifically for collecting weather data. One flies now in the United States — the Global Hawk — but its mission is to look at how hurricanes form.
The Meteodrone from Meteomatics is different. It flies up to 20,000 feet (6,096 meters) into Earth’s atmosphere loaded with small weather instruments and sensors that measure temperature, dew point, relative humidity, wind speed and pressure. It also features an onboard camera, and the entire drone can also withstand inclement weather like ice that could stall propellers and parachutes.
Data is automatically recorded onboard the drone while it’s inflight, and then operators can download it to a computer once the drone lands. Then after the data is processed, it can be transmitted via the National Weather Service’s partners.
Why Is Collecting Weather Data Important?
Aside from climbing up into Earth’s lower atmosphere, weather drones like the Meteodrone can get closer to urban environments, as well as offshore areas. This means they can get the most accurate data in those places for hyperlocal forecasting. Drones also can offer real-time feeds, which makes forecasts more precise. The drones also can fly nocturnal missions, providing highly accurate weather forecasting data for the following day.
Without these data, meteorologists can give inaccurate predictions about all types of weather conditions, including fog and low cloud cover to thunderstorm development and wind.
One especially exciting thing that the Meteodrone can do is detect ice, which is generally very difficult. Ice buildup on the wings of a drone can prevent the aircraft’s ability to stay aloft. This data will be especially helpful to companies in aviation, as well as long term research on climate change.
“The benefit of the Meteodrone here is being able to get those constant and frequent profiles, particularly when you have interesting or important weather events going on,” Brad Guay, a meteorologist at Meteomatics, told The Washington Post.
Even though the drones have large Meteobases, they’re still operated remotely via a human pilot. And they’re still more portable than standard weather stations and towers.
Where Else Are Meteodrones Being Used?
The pending launch for Meteodrone in the U.S. is still awaiting government approval, but is expected sometime this fall. While these will be the first weather drones used in the United States to record weather data, Meteodrones have been in use in Switzerland since 2017.
There are currently 15 Meteodrone Meteobases collecting data in the Alps. These Meteobases serve as the drone’s “home” — or where it takes off, lands and its battery is charged. It’s also the communication link between the drone pilot and the drone.