OSU Uses Drones to Conduct Air Temperature Research. Initial Test Flights Made Near Hermiston

April 11, 2015, Hermiston Herald

OSU Extension Service

Scientists at Oregon State University announced this week that they are measuring atmospheric temperatures with fiber optic thermometers suspended from unmanned aircraft using methods and equipment tested near Hermiston.

According to an OSU Extension Service release, with funding from the National Science Foundation, John Selker is buying two new unmanned aerial vehicles — known as UAVs or drones — to loft sophisticated measuring instruments he designed. The research will study part of the Earth’s lower atmosphere, which is poorly understood and has been difficult to study.

“These two technologies together will add orders of magnitude to the precision and resolution of our atmospheric measurements,” said Selker, a hydrologist and professor in OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences. “We’ll be able to take a continuous slice of data through space and time, getting information that no one has been able to capture before.”

According to the press release, the high-powered thermometers use fiber-optic cable, similar to that used for telephone and internet communication. By measuring tiny pulses of light zipping along spun-glass strands, the fiber cables capture thousands of temperature readings along their length, detecting differences as slight as 0.01 degree Celsius.

In early-morning test flights near Hermiston, Selker’s OSU colleagues Michael Wing and Chad Higgins suspended a 400-foot sensing cable — not much thicker than a kite string — from an OSU-owned quad copter, the press release stated. They flew the aircraft high enough that the tip of the cable just touched the ground. The cable reported temperatures every 13 centimeters.

The researchers started the flights at sunrise to see how the atmosphere develops in the boundary layer, the lowest portion of Earth’s atmosphere, as the sun’s heat begins to move the air.

The Earth’s surface and near atmosphere — the area up to about 1,000 meters above the ground — is a critical zone of feedbacks between air, water and earth, Selker said. He said until now scientists have had a hard time taking comprehensive measurements of the lower atmosphere.

“Typically, you’d have to take readings from a fixed point, a tower or a balloon,” he said. “Now, instead of measuring one or two or three points at a time, we can measure a million points.”

Such detailed measurements may shed light on how clouds and rainstorms develop, how air pollution gets diluted, how pollen moves across the landscape and other atmospheric dynamics.

This story originally appeared in the Hermiston Herald.