Flight Plan: How Unmanned Aircraft Are Helping Scientific Research Take Off

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Flight Plan: How Unmanned Aircraft Are Helping Scientific Research Take Off

The U.S. Geological Survey keeps track of how much water flows through rivers and streams  across the country to help plan for shortages—or at the other extreme—brace for floods. But there are more waterways than the agency is able to track, so recently they added a new tool that will not only help them cover more ground , but also help them learn more about this precious resource—all without ever touching a drop.


Flight Plan: How Unmanned Aircraft Are Helping Scientific Research Take Off

Did you go river rafting this summer? If you did, maybe you wondered how the outfitters knew it was safe to be on the water—and whether you were in for a wild ride.

Before professional operators decide to get on a river, they check how much water is in the channel and how fast it’s moving. They do that by using data from streamgages—mechanical devices that measure water levels and flow rates. There are about 8,000 of these gages scattered around the country, and we’re standing next to one a few miles west of Cañon City, Colorado, along the Arkansas River. This particular gage, which looks a bit like a small grain silo, is super important to outfitters because it’s just upstream of the Royal Gorge—rafting terrain not for the faint of heart with steep drops through a canyon and Class V rapids.

John Fulton from the U.S. Geological Survey confesses that he’s never rafted the Gorge but has been told that it gets quite narrow and extremely fast. His agency monitors these gages and he says they still work pretty well, given that the first one was established some 130 years ago near the town of Embudo, New Mexico, where it records flows on the Rio Grande.

So who uses this information, besides rafters and kayakers? Fulton says that much of the information USGS collects is used by National Weather Service for flood forecasting, the U.S. Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation for reservoir operations, and the U.S. Forest Service for forest hydrology.

The gages provide valuable insights that range from helping utilities plan to warning of a potential dangerous flood. But to get other information, like perhaps temperature or the amount of particulates in a river, USGS scientists have to get in the water or use boats to collect data. That’s not only labor intensive, but it also only provides data for one fixed location—leaving many remote places unmapped. Also, Fulton notes that it can be a bit risky to wade into fast-moving water.

So, about two years ago, USGS started looking for other ways to collect data. 

Read the full blog at H2O Radio