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Image credit: NASA Photo / Ken Ulbrich

Tiny airborne probe could help local weather forecasts

You could get as-it-happens atmospheric data well beyond airports.

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NASA Photo / Ken Ulbrich

To date, it hasn't been easy to get loads of airborne weather data beyond major airports. Airliners have had a sophisticated probe system (TAMDAR Edge) for over a dozen years, but that doesn't help much in those remote areas where you may only see smaller airplanes or drones. NASA is close to covering this gap, though: it recently started test-flying a relatively tiny, lightweight version of TAMDAR Edge aboard an Ikhana drone. The tech promises real-time weather data on virtually any aircraft, filling in local atmospheric conditions even in barren places like the Arctic. You could have clearer indications of when a thunderstorm is brewing in a very specific region, or track previously unrecorded conditions above hurricanes.

Right now, the test system is quite limited: researchers have to wait until their drone lands to fetch information. It'll get a big help later this year, though, as a link to Iridium's satellite network will feed live weather data to both pilots and forecasters. NASA even envisions a dual-pronged hurricane forecasting approach where a mothership aircraft combines the probe's data with that from gliders to get a more complete picture. If forecasters can get a better sense of where a hurricane is going, they can focus evacuations and relief on those areas that genuinely need it, rather than covering large swaths of the coastline "just in case."

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