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Drones Offer New Horizon, Solutions for Weather Modification

Cloud seeding may be the next frontier for Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), more commonly known as drones, with potential global implications.

The state of Nevada was one of six selected test sites by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in December 2013. One of the state's focuses is how UAS can make cloud seeding an easier, more economical process.

Cloud seeding is the attempt to modify the amount of precipitation from clouds, done mostly in an attempt to alleviate drought by creating precipitation. Presently it is done by launching silver iodide into the clouds from the ground or by flying over top of the clouds and dropping the chemicals into the cloud formations.

There is still necessary research to be done before cloud seeding can be proven as an effective tool according to AccuWeather.com Meteorologist Jesse Ferrell.

"It's hard to prove if it works or not because we don't know what would happen if we hadn't seeded," he said. Still, he sees how drones could assist the technology once more concrete evidence is gathered.

Cloud seeding is a more common practice internationally than within the United States. China is known to use the technique frequently. The Nevada government is hoping to break into the global weather modification market by working with this new technology.

Director of Weather Modification Activities at the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nevada, Jeff Tilley said that using drones for cloud seeding will offer a more cost-effective alternative to the controversial process.

Ground-based cloud seeding and manned airborne aircraft seeding are the two procedures currently used. While ground-based is the more common approach, it does not provide as much reach as the more expensive airborne. UAS could bridge the gap between the two and offer an alternative that is inexpensive, yet covers more area.

Fuel is one of the factors that drives up the price of airborne seeding and Tilley sees that as the area where the UAS could provide the most difference.

"You can very quickly go through a budget for a year's supply of fuel during one storm if you're not careful," he said. By using smaller, lighter drones, which weigh less than a typical seeding aircraft, the fuel cost difference would be substantial.

"Fuel is expensive, pilots are expensive and often in a storm you have to go up and down multiple trips," he said.

Using drones, especially in areas with mountainous terrain, could be a safer way to reach the clouds that sit close to the terrain itself. Manned aircraft cannot presently reach such clouds due to FAA regulations on the proximity of aircraft and terrain.

"The smaller size of the drones, and the fact they are not manned, provides potential opportunities for drones to fly below cloud base and seed there as well as at cloud top," said Tilley.

The process of the seeding itself will not drastically change, Tilley explained. Some changes will have to be made to the size of the flares due to the compact size of the drone versus a manned aircraft.

In order to measure the effectiveness of cloud seeding, they hope to use multiple aircrafts to gather simultaneous measurements.

Tilley and his team are working closely with the FAA to operate as a test facility for the cloud-seeding operations as well as researching other weather technologies to "increase the observational net," he said.

"The potential market for the technology is substantial bigger than the current cloud-seeding operational community," Tilley said. Entities within the U.S. and other countries would use the technology for whatever precipitation they need who currently cannot afford to use the laborious, aging technology available now.

The Nevada state government recognizes how quickly the UAS industry is developing and has a goal to become the global leader according to Thomas Wilczek, Defense and Aerospace Industry liaison at the Nevada Governor's Office of Economic Development.

"From the state perspective, there's that potential to capture a percentage of a $90 billion revenue-producing industry," he said.

Wilczek said that support has been strong from local government all the way up to state level and that there is an understanding as to how important this industry can be for Nevada.

"The industry was developed here," Wilczek said. "That subject matter expertise resides here in the state."