The rainmaker: UAE-funded electric drone project designed to be the new cloud seeding

Cloudbusting strategy triggers rainfall to boost crops and provide domestic water supply

Scientists have developed special drones that can fire an electric charge into clouds to make them rain, potentially paving the way for downpours in the Gulf region.

The project, led by British researchers and funded by the UAE, could see fleets of unmanned aerial vehicles replace manned aircraft that seed clouds with chemicals to create showers.

The drones, designed by scientists at the University of Reading, beam electricity into clouds using the charge to expand water droplets, causing the clouds to bond together and fall as rain.

Dr Keri Nicoll inspects a drone. Ashraf Helmi/The National
Dr Keri Nicoll inspects a drone. Ashraf Helmi/The National

“The idea is that we're going to fly those into clouds and deliberately release a charge to charge up the cloud droplets,” Dr Keri Nicoll, one of the projects scientists, told The National.

Normally to encourage rain, manned aircraft are flown into clouds to lace them with salt particles or silver iodide. While this technique has proved successful in the UAE, increasing rainfall by up to 30 per cent, new methods are being considered to produce more water.

The UAE, which has invested $1.4 million into the Reading University project, could enhance its ability to grow its own crops and produce fresh water if the innovation succeeds.

“What we're doing here is something that's completely different,” said Dr Nicoll, an associate professor at Reading. “We are using very small aircraft, which means that things are actually much more cost effective, and we're simply charging up what's already there.

“The promise behind charging droplets, or particles, is that this technique might well work in tandem with the existing cloud-seeding operation, making them more efficient at producing rainfall.”

In the coming months the drones will be made available by its British university developers to the UAE's National Centre of Meteorology (NCM) as one of its nine “rain enhancement” projects funded by $15m from the Ministry of Presidential Affairs.

“We are continuing to support the projects to contribute to the development of viable solution for the growing global water stress,” said His Excellency Dr Abdulla Al Mandous, the NCM’s director. “Such efforts are crucial in driving innovation in applied scientific research to advance global rain enhancement capacity.”

As part of that effort scientists have built a fleet of five drones and trained a team of pilots to fly them for testing in British clouds. But in the next few months the aircraft will move to the UAE to see how effective they are in the Gulf air that is much dustier and drier. “That means there's a lot more charge in the air naturally,” Dr Nicoll said. “We will have a team in the UAE who are going to be repeating our measurements in the UK.”

Scientists have built a fleet of five drones and trained a team of pilots to fly them for testing in British clouds. Ashraf Helmi/The National
Scientists have built a fleet of five drones and trained a team of pilots to fly them for testing in British clouds. Ashraf Helmi/The National

Britain has eight times more rainfall than the UAE, with an annual average of 885mm allowing for substantial crop growing and animal grazing.

The new system works by ground operators directing the drones towards low clouds. Once inside the haze, the aircraft use their electric-charge emission instruments to release a burst of electricity.

As clouds naturally carry positive and negative charges, altering their electrical balance could make droplets grow and merge, eventually producing rain.

It is one of the first times scientists have used drones in an attempt to stimulate rainfall from clouds.

If the project proves successful, especially when merging with current cloud-seeding techniques, it could prove effective in resolving a major problem in the Gulf region by allowing more crops to be grown and providing domestic water.

With the Middle East expected to become even drier with rising temperatures from global warming, it would be a welcome development.

“This project has been brilliant in terms of physically enabling us to develop new technology to actually get into the clouds and release a charge to study it first-hand, rather than to just model it,” Dr Nicoll said.

There are currently 50 nations looking to establish rainfall enhancement programmes.

Updated: May 31, 2021 09:01 AM

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