For more than 100 years, weather researchers have used weather balloons to help predict what may be coming.

While the balloons have gotten better as technology has improved, there’s an opportunity for newer tech to join balloons in the research game.

What You Need To Know

  • NASA was on Fort Drum during Monday's eclipse to test how effective drones can be in feeding back real-time weather data for forecasting

  • NASA says drones, while not being able to fly as high as balloons, do have the ability to not only get sensors back up in the air quickly, but return to the ground and use again. Balloon sensors fly away and are never seen again.

  • Usable airspace is a concern, as NASA's uncrewed aircraft cannot fly more than 400 feet (FAA regulations), so they were able to gain access to Fort Drum and fly over ranges up to 10,000 feet

During Monday's eclipse, NASA was flying a different kind of weather device. Like a weather balloon, a drone collects weather forecast data.

“So, I’m looking at all the data in real-time. I'm looking at the atmospheric data pressure, temperature, humidity. I'm also looking at wind data. So, I have horizontal vertical wind speed,” NASA Aerospace Engineer Tyler Willhite said.

“Particularly, during an eclipse, we can look at what's the effect on the atmosphere for when you turn off the sun,” NASA Mission Commander Jennifer Fowler added.

But at the same time, they are investigating just how much of a game-changer technology can be.

“We’re proving out that our aircraft can get to the altitudes that we like. Our goal is 10,000 feet,” Fowler said of unmanned aircraft technology.

Testing shows some benefits of a drone over a weather balloon.

“It can go faster is the idea. That's one of the things we're showing. Can we just keep turning it around where we don't have to, we don't have to fill, launch, wait?” Fowler added about a drone’s place at the table with a balloon.

It’s also a lot more inexpensive. Drones don't just fly away and pop, taking expensive equipment with it.

“We can bring it back. We don't have to replace the sensor,” she said about unmanned aircraft, pointing out that a sensor is lost forever after launching with balloon. “We can just keep we're using the sensor. It doesn't fly away from us.”

However, there are also some downfalls, including a lower flight height and battery life.

“If our goal is 10,000 feet, can we get there and return with battery? We don't want it to fall. Sky safety is our number one piece of the mission,” Fowler added.

The other issue is restrictions on airspace. The FAA says drones, even NASA’s, can only fly so high. That's why the NASA group came from Virginia to Fort Drum to test.

“You go, 'hey, can I find some restricted airspace?' And then that came down to who has restricted airspace along the path of totality,” Fowler said about this trip.

“So the higher we can get, the more data we can get, the better we can improve models,” NASA remote pilot Jake Revesz said.

Technology upgrades and developing a better understanding of how valuable the information from a drone is will determine the future that drones have in the weather game.

The NASA crew says the more information you can get, the better weather forecasting will be, and makes testing during infrequent events even more valuable.