Last week, in Reno, Nevada, a cloud-seeding drone flew for the first time. The test flight deployed two silver iodide flares, demonstrating its ability to cloud-seed. And this isn't just a neat demo. Cloud-seeding is a big business, and it's much cheaper to launch small unmanned drones than to send up full-sized airplanes with human pilots.
The biggest win, apart from the cost, is safety. Regular planes need to fly above the clouds so they can see what they are doing, whereas a drone can fly inside clouds. A drone can also fly slower, allowing it to seed the clouds more evenly.
The fixed-wing drone used in the test has a wingspan of just under 12 feet and weighed under 55 pounds, allowing it relatively long flight times and resilience in bad weather and winds. The test flight lasted 18 minutes, with the craft reaching an altitude of 400 feet, although it can fly as high as 1,200 feet.
The possibilities the demo heralds are exciting. Drones brings the costs of cloud seeding way down, and could make it a practical strategy in many more places. Then again, if a seeded cloud rains in one place, that means the rain won't fall somewhere else. Cloud seeding doesn't solve drought, it only moves it around.
Dry places are still interested. The United Arab Emirates is considering building a mountain to create rain clouds that could then be seeded to produce rain. It spent $558,000 on seeding clouds last year, and drones could help to reduce that cost quite a bit.
But the UAE makes an interesting example. Climate change will make some already-dry parts of the globe even drier, and cloud seeding—especially if it is cheap and easy to carry out with drones—could cause or exacerbate conflict in water-scarce areas. Who knows where that might lead, but as water is arguably a more essential resource than oil, it may get pretty ugly.
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