Scientists at Oregon State University (OSU) are using fiber-optic thermometers suspended from unmanned aircraft to measure atmospheric temperatures.
With funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), John Selker – a hydrologist and professor in OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences – is buying two new unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to loft sophisticated measuring instruments of his own design, according to OSU.
UAVs equipped with fiber-optic sensors represent “a fundamentally new way to look at the lower atmosphere,” Selker says. “It’s like living with 20-200 vision and then getting a good pair of glasses. You see a different universe.”
Selker’s UAVs will join a growing suite of instruments and tools at the Center for Transformative Environmental Monitoring Programs (CTEMPs), an NSF-sponsored partnership between OSU and the University of Nevada-Reno.
The $1.2 million NSF grant renewal will also fund CTEMPs' purchase of other UAV-mountable instruments, including thermal imaging cameras and a small LiDAR.
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 quadcopter. They flew the aircraft 30 miles/hour and sent it high enough that the tip of the cable just touched the ground. The cable reported temperatures every 13 centimeters.
“Typically, you’d have to take readings from a fixed point, a tower or a balloon,” Selker says. “Now, instead of measuring one or two or three points at a time, we can measure a million points.”
Such detailed measurements promise to shed light on how clouds and rainstorms develop, how air pollution gets diluted, how pollen moves across the landscape, and other important atmospheric dynamics, he explains.