Unmanned aircraft sample California’s smog

Scientists at Scripps Institute of Oceanography have pioneered a project collecting air pollution data north of Los Angeles using unmanned aerial vehicles. The data collection began in April and will continue through January 2009 to generate a full picture of seasonal variations in air pollution.

The UAVs, which are made by Advanced Ceramics Research, in Tucson, carry instruments that measure cloud droplets, temperature, humidity, and more for a significantly lower cost than is typical for manned flights. Because routine manned flights are impractical, air pollution is derived from ozone and carbon dioxide sampled at the surface. However, the measurements will most accurately reflect plumes released locally, for instance from forest fires or vehicle traffic. Ground-based samplers can’t easily measure concentrations of pollution that exist farther up in an air column. In particular, they tend to overlook the giant plumes of pollution that travel over the Pacific Ocean carrying dust, aerosols, black carbon, ozone and carbon monoxide—many of which contribute to regional climate change. 

In past experiments with UAVs in Maldives, the Scripps researchers found that a large mass of air pollution in southeast Asia can disrupt rainfall patterns, cause cooling near the Earth’s surface and warming at higher altitudes. The behavior of that plume was also linked to accelerated glacial melt in the Himalayas.

To see if they can pull together a similar picture of the impact of air quality on climate in North America, each month the Scripps researchers are sending up a couple unmanned airplanes to 12,000 feet, which then descend in increments to sample the full air column. A pilot controls the plane from a test site at Edwards Air Force Base. Each UAV has about six hours of flight time before it needs to be refueled and can carry up to 15 lbs of instrumentation.

Advanced Ceramics’ unmanned aircraft have also been used by the U.S. military in battlefield operations, the Canadian Air Force to scan remote environments, and by scientists to study glacial melting in Greenland. They’re particularly well-suited to climate change and weather research for their unobtrusiveness and affordability.


Interesting article! With data to show that heavy pollution affects rainfall, I guess George W[aterboard] will have to look the other way.

* Please * use Gender Neutral terms in articles. Ages ago I came up with "unstaffed", "crewless" and "unoccupied" to indicate that there was no person aboard. I am sure you can think of others if you do not care for these. Thank you!