Autonomous cloud seeding opens new doors for science and engineering

DAx8 Cloud Seeding Flare Test on Wed., Jan. 27, 2016 in Reno, Nev. Kevin Clifford/Drone America

The Desert Research Institution (DRI) has been cloud seeding in the Tahoe and Ruby Mountain since the early 1960's. Currently ground-based generators are used for enhancing the precipitation in the Tahoe Basin, Truckee Basin and some areas in Colorado. They also operate a piloted aircraft for cloud seeding in the Walker Basin.

Cloud seeding by airplane can be a very dangerous process, because pilots have to fly into developing/developed storms. In 1980 and 2000 fatal accidents occurred involved cloud seeding by airplane.

Autonomous aircraft's will help reduce the human risk factor, provide more efficient cloud seeding, and pave way for scientific and engineering innovations. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced Nevada as one of six locations to be a center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) back in 2013, and this designation has paved the way for Drone America and DRI's research.

The science:

Snowflakes and rain droplets need something to bind to in the atmosphere in order to form. This particle they bind onto is known as a cloud condensation nucleus or CCN. When no CCN's are present, pure water vapor has to be supercooled down to 8F for a long period of time before the vapor can spontaneously form into droplets. This means that the air in the atmosphere has to be supersatured to 400% humidity before water droplets can form. This process can be very difficult to reach, especially in a desert. That is why CCN's are so important. Cloud seeding introduces CCN's into the atmosphere in the form of silver iodide, and allow precipitation events to more easily occur. BUT- enough water vapor has to be present, it's not called sky seeding for a reason, you need stormy activity to be present. Clear skies just won't do!

The engineering:

The DAx8, a multi rotor aircraft, that was originally designed for emergency services, was fitted to ignite a silver iodide flares. The next step will be to test on a small fixed wing UAS called the Savant that can reach high elevations and deal with more extreme temperatures. With the success of that flight, the team at Drone America plans to then equip a Phoebus, which is a large fixed UAS capable of carrying more flares that can mimic the actual use of a manned aircraft.

Mike Richards, President and CEO or Drone America, says his team is more like family. He runs a completely in house operations from engineering, to printing parts with their 3D printer, manufacturing and assembly of the drones, and lastly testing. This local company is paving the way for innovative drone technology.

2015-2016 cloud seeding success:

Frank McDonough, Assistant Research Scientist, and Director of DRI's Cloud Seeding Program reports,

"Through Jan 24, 2016 we are at estimated at 11,000 - 13,000 acre-feet added to the Tahoe/Truckee watershed. This translates to 3.5 billion to 4.2 billion gallons of additional water that the DRI cloud seeding program has added to our current snowpack."