UAS Project to Increase Snowpack in Nevada Mountains



A new industry-academic research partnership will bring together Nevada’s top atmospheric scientists and leading unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) engineers, designers, and data experts to develop and test innovative applications focused on increasing snowpack depths in the Lake Tahoe region.

Led by the Desert Research Institute (DRI), and supported by Nevada’s Knowledge Fund, this first-of-its-kind project will combine more than 30 years of DRI weather modification research and expertise with the proven experience in aerospace manufacturing and flight operations of Reno-based Drone America, and the industry leading unmanned aerial data services of Las Vegas-based AviSight.

“This project is a key part of helping Nevada address the ongoing drought and explore innovative solutions for natural-resource challenges such as augmenting our regional water supply,” said the project’s lead scientist, Adam Watts, Ph.D, a DRI assistant research professor and expert in UAS applications for ecological and natural-resources applications

The project will develop and test Drone America’s latest UAS technologies for cloud seeding operations across the Lake Tahoe Basin and Truckee River watershed, where DRI has conducted ground-based winter cloud seeding operations for more than 30 years. On average, DRI’s cloud seeding program adds approximately 14,000 acre-feet (4.5 billion gallons) of water to the Truckee River watershed’s snowpack each winter season, explained Frank McDonough, lead forecaster and manager of the DRI Weather Modification Program.

Currently, under local support from the Truckee Meadows Water Authority (TMWA) and the Western Regional Water Commission (WRWC), DRI conducts cloud seeding using ground-based generators along and West of the Sierra Crest, increasing the resilience of municipalities and agricultural operations to drought, added McDonough.

While manned aircraft have been utilized in the past for cloud seeding operations and research in the Lake Tahoe region, DRI has not pursued such methods for cloud seeding in the region in nearly two decades due to the high costs and risks associated with airborne seeding from a manned aircraft.

This new collaboration hopes to change that, explained Watts.

“When used correctly, airborne cloud seeding platforms offer great potential to increase the number of storms that can be seeded, thus helping to increase the local snowpack and resulting river flows,” he said. “Further, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) could be deployed much faster and more often to increase effectiveness and decrease the costs and risks compared to that of manned airborne cloud seeding.”

The team will utilize two of Drone America’s cutting-edge unmanned platforms; the DAx8 multi-rotor aircraft that is designed to carry payloads, sensors and cameras while providing extra safety and redundancy; and the Savant fixed-wing aircraft that is designed to excel in tough commercial unmanned system applications despite its light weight design (less than 55 pounds). Both platforms incorporate a sophisticated autopilot system, providing the aircraft with autonomous capability and safe, reliable navigation over complex terrain such as the areas where cloud seeding is done.

Drone America will also provide experienced flight operations teams, consisting of air vehicle operators, payload operators, and technicians, who are well trained and mission-ready. The team has over 21,000 combined flight hours ranging from small UAS to commercial airliners.

“We have been working with the DRI since 2013 on ways to utilize our UAS platforms to make aerial cloud seeding operations safer and more effective,” said Mike Richards, President and CEO of Drone America. “Now, with the support of Governor Brian Sandoval’s Office of Economic Development and the State’s Knowledge Fund we will be able to make these innovations a reality.”

AviSight, a leading provider of manned and unmanned aerial data services will coordinate and manage the project’s airspace access with the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) and lead business development efforts to expand test and deployments in Nevada and surrounding Western states.

Together with Drone America and AviSight, DRI researchers plan to create weather forecasts and conduct flight planning for manned and unmanned aircraft; conduct test of cloud seeding operations using manned and unmanned systems as well as existing ground generators; and estimate the effectiveness of UAS cloud seeding applications across the DRI’s current Lake Tahoe Basin operations area.

“This project is going to notably advance Nevada’s UAS industry,” said Steve Hill, Executive Director of the Nevada Governor’s Office of Economic Development. “When proven effective, this research can be used to promote Nevada-born UAS innovation in other areas where cloud seeding is currently done, including most of the Western States, Canada, and several other countries.”

Additionally, jobs created as a result of this initiative are intended to be high-paying STEM jobs that will bolster the UAS research and development capabilities across Nevada. The project’s Knowledge Fund grant will provide $400,000 to the project over the next two years.


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