Three pioneering researchers have won a $5 million grant for their work in rain enhancement.
The awards were announced as part of Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week at Adnec on Wednesday and coincided with the three-day forum on rain enhancement science.
Professor Eric Frew, Dr Ali Abshaev and Dr Lulin Xue were awarded the prize by the UAE Research Programme for Rain Enhancement Science.
Prof Frew is researching the use of drones to seed clouds.
Dr Xue is trying to improve the scientific understanding of the rain enhancement process, while Dr Abshaev is looking at the creation of artificial updrafts in clouds.
The programme was launched in 2015 by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Presidential Affairs, to tackle the issue of water security.
He said the award "demonstrates our leadership in tackling the challenge of global water stress and devising the innovative solutions needed to aid people at risk around the world".
“As rapidly expanding populations place increasing pressure on limited water sources, the UAE is playing a dynamic and imaginative role in advancing the science and technology needed to ensure water for all in need,” he said.
The three winners were among 201 entries that came from 68 countries.
Prof Frew works at the University of Colorado; Dr Xue at the Hua Xin Chuang Zhi Science and Technology in Beijing, China; and Prof Abshaev from the Rain Suppression Research Centre in Nalchik, Russia.
Particularly striking was the work of Prof Frew in the US, who is pioneering the use of drones in cloud seeding.
While the work is at an early stage, it involves using radar to monitor an approaching storm and then identifying whether it’s useful for cloud seeding.
That triggers the launch of the first drone which harvests data from the clouds using new sensors.
If it’s amenable for seeding, a second drone is launched to fire salt flares into the cloud.
These salt particles attract water droplets in the hope they will fall to the ground as rain. All this can take place over a matter of hours.
The drones are built at the university, are not directly piloted and use an algorithm to determine where to fly. They have a five-metre wing span and can carry 15 kilos of payload.
Experiments have been conducted in Tornado Alley in the US and the team will be carrying out a field campaign in the UAE with drones. Results are expected over the next few years.
“The hope is to put the ground grew as close to the storm as possible,” Prof Frew told The National. “The drone decides where to fly. There is always a person overseeing rather than piloting.”
The work of Dr Xue, meanwhile, aims to understand the physics behind clouds. He is conducting experiments to simulate clouds and seeding operations in an internal chamber. Depending on the results, these simulations can then be attempted under real conditions. Most of this research will be conducted in China but conditions unique to UAE will be tested.
“Cloud seeding is probably one of the most efficient ways to gain a large amount of water as an extra source,” said Dr Xue. “It’s also more cost-effective than desalination and other methods.”
Finally, the work of Dr Abshaev is focusing on creating artificial updrafts using solar energy which could then form clouds and lead to rainfall. “We selected this project after looking at rain enhancement technology in the UAE,” he said. “When there are no clouds, there is no chance for precipitation. So producing an updraft may produce the formation of a cloud.”
Abdullah Al Mandous, director of the National Centre of Meteorology, which runs the UAE’s cloud-seeding programme, said it will "help solve water security across the globe and bring water to the driest places on earth".
"We wish the awardees all the success in their studies,” he added.
This year marks the third cycle of the awards and each project has a research plan of three years.
The next call for submissions will be paused to support the winners over the past three cycles.
“Although rain enhancement has been a relatively marginal scientific field for several decades, it is attracting increasing interest and funding. As of 2017, 52 countries are conducting weather modification programmes,” said Omar Al Yazeedi, director of research, development and training at the NCM.
“Next year will see a pause in our annual call for submissions to allow us to both assess the immense progress made so far and to set new long-term goals in cooperation with our deep and broad network of international partners,” he said.
“In the immediate future, we will continue to support our nine awardees in their efforts to expand the knowledge frontiers of this richly promising field.”