Weather balloon

Arctic atmospheric temperature data pinpointed with balloon-drone combo

Image credit: Dreamstime

Researchers at Sandia National Laboratories have flown a tethered balloon and a drone together for the first time, in order to collect data on Arctic atmospheric temperature with more precise location control than ever before.

Collecting atmospheric temperature data is vital when it comes to forecasting the weather – particularly severe weather – and refining complex climate models.

For many years, meteorologists and other researchers have used weather balloons and tethered balloons in order to carry sensitive temperature sensors into the atmosphere. Balloons – while able to remain afloat for long periods at a time – are not able to capture precise location data and are very awkward to manoeuvre.

“The [drone] and the balloon really complement each other in that the [drone] has a smaller flight time, but it’s much more spatially diverse,” said Dr Dari Dexheimer, an atmospheric scientist at Sandia. “The tethered balloon can stay up for a long time, giving you a lot of data, but it’s not easily mobile.”

Beyond being able to fly to precise locations, drones, unlike balloons, do not require helium (an increasingly rare and valuable resource), are reusable and can take off from remote locations with little preparation.

In order to record the atmospheric temperatures, Dr Dexheimer and her colleagues tethered the balloon downwind and the drone remained a distance away to avoid tangling with it.

According to the Sandia researchers, being able to operate drones in the extreme environment of the Arctic could have valuable implications for national security.

“Operating [drones] in the remote, harsh environments of the Arctic will provide opportunities to harden the technologies in ways that are directly transferable to the needs of national security in terms of robustness and reliability,” said Jon Salton, a robotics manager at Sandia.

“Ultimately, integrating the specialised operational and sensing needs required for Arctic research will transfer to a variety of national security needs.”

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