UAS Elevates Weather Research at the University of Oklahoma

This story originally published by the OU VPRP/Natalie Fix

OU researchers have a variety of tools at their disposal when looking at weather patterns and when forecasting and modeling. One tool gaining popularity and functionality is the uncrewed aerial system (UAS) or drone.

An interdisciplinary team on campus is currently developing and testing drones and collecting data to better understand the atmosphere’s boundary layer and its effects on severe weather formation.

The Boundary-Layer Integrated Sensing and Simulation (BLISS) group comprises OU School of Meteorology faculty, staff and students; research scientists from the Cooperative Institute for Severe and High-Impact Weather Research and Operations (CIWRO); and NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL) federal scientists. The cross-functional team operates various UAS, two Collaborative Lower Atmospheric Mobile Profiling System (CLAMPS) facilities, as well as a truck that uses lidar – a remote sensing method that uses light in the form of a pulsed laser to measure ranges. These all enable the researchers to collect extensive data that helps improve scientific understanding of the atmosphere’s boundary layer, the lowest few thousand feet of the atmosphere.

BLISS has 10 CopterSondes as part of their UAS arsenal. The CopterSonde is a testament to OU innovation. Designed in-house by OU scientists, the UAS platform is instrumental in BLISS research goals. In 2022 alone, the group has logged over 640 flights.

“After every field campaign we participate in, there is always something to improve,” said Antonio Segales, a doctoral student in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Gallogly College of Engineering, and CIWRO research associate. “There is always something to learn in the field.”

Collecting Data in Extreme Weather

The CopterSonde has been tested in various extreme conditions: in the cold of Finland, where ice on propellers became a problem; at high altitudes in Colorado; and close to storms and in high wind conditions in the southeastern United States. Any time a UAS is used, it’s a minimum of a three-person team: the pilot, who must always have the instrument in their line of sight, the ground station operator and the visual observer. As the team is usually collecting data in near-storm environments, safety is key, and the team must always stay weather-aware.

Recently, members of BLISS participated in the TRacking Aerosol Convection interactions ExpeRiment (TRACER) campaign in Houston, TX. Team members spent several weeks and logged hundreds of flying hours at several sites, taking measurements of temperature, humidity and air pressure – testing the limits of instruments and gathering vital data about the boundary layer.

Team member Francesca Lappin, a doctoral student in OU’s School of Meteorology, College of Atmospheric and Geographic Sciences, has logged roughly 250 hours piloting UAS between the TRACER and Propagation, Evolution and Rotation in Linear Storms (PERiLS) campaigns. Lappin described the research opportunities in Houston as both “fun and overwhelming.”

From the TRACER data, the team hopes to better understand weather conditions and how factors such as sea breeze forms and how far inland sea breeze affects the weather. Also, since multiple sites were visited, they hope to show how urban areas and factors such as buildings, dense population areas, pollution and traffic patterns can influence momentum and mass in the boundary layer.

“Drone data collection has so many applications,” said Petra Klein, Ph.D., executive associate dean of the College of Atmospheric and Geographic Sciences. “For example, in TRACER, we are learning how the boundary layer develops, especially at complex sites. By collecting data in the urban and ocean environments, we are watching the ocean/land effect on the layer and improving [weather] models.”

The OU-supported project, “Targeted Observation by Radars and UAS of Supercells,” (TORUS) was recently featured in the New York Times. TORUS deployed dozens of university and government scientists who used highly sensitive instruments to measure structures within supercells, the storm systems that produce many of the most severe tornadoes.

Collaborating for Better Science

Federal scientist Elizabeth Smith, Ph.D., says the benefit of BLISS is the cooperation across institutions where the resulting science is of a higher quality than can be accomplished at the individual level.

“Working with the CopterSonde weather-sensing UAS is a perfect example, where NSSL scientists like me gain access to a fantastic platform for research through collaboration with the CIWRO team developing and deploying that UAS, and the CIWRO/OU teams join NSSL projects with access to NSSL’s platforms and research resources,” Smith said. “This collaborative style also helps NSSL connect our work more directly with students at OU and train the next generation of scientists. We are all benefiting this way, and our science is benefiting too.”

One of the goals of BLISS is to improve weather models and how the data is collected and shared with forecasters. They hope to optimize flights to improve data collection and continue to improve the instruments and attached sensors. Currently, BLISS scientists are putting what they’ve learned over a year of field campaigns to work as they design a new iteration of the CopterSonde, which will participate in next year’s PERiLS campaign. In 2023, the new version will be tested to see if it performs better than its forebearers.

“This truly is a collaborative effort,” said Tyler Bell, Ph.D., BLISS research scientist. “Our drone research is an opportunity to work with a wide range of people from grad students, engineers, research scientists and more across many disciplines to prove and improve the platform.”

Dr. Elizabeth N. Smith
Dr. Elizabeth N. Smith
Research Meteorologist

Elizabeth joined NSSL as a research meteorologist in January 2020, where she focuses on boundary-layer processes relevant to near- and pre-storm environments and convection initiation.