Umbrellas at the ready: in the coming months, scientists are to test a new way of making rain in the UAE by using drones.
The new method has been developed at the University of Reading in the UK with UAE funding and involves sending specially-designed drones into the sky to beam electricity into clouds. The electrical charge in the clouds attracts water droplets and causes them to expand, eventually turning into rain.
To encourage rainfall, the UAE currently uses cloud-seeding, which involves manned aircraft flying into clouds and spraying them with salt particles or silver iodide. Using drones works out considerably cheaper because they can be controlled from the ground, with no need for a pilot. Rain-making drones can also be used in tandem with existing cloud-seeding methods to improve efficiency and effectiveness, said Dr Keri Nicoll, one of the scientists on the project.
The drones were designed and built by scientists at Reading University “because you can’t buy these off the shelf,” said Dr Nicoll.
“What we’re doing is something that’s completely different,” she added. “ We are simply charging up what is already there but we are using very small aircraft which means things are much more cost effective.”
Clouds naturally have positive and negative charges. Sending drones up into low clouds to release a burst of electricity alters the electrical balance and helps to make tiny water droplets expand and merge to form rain.
The drones are set to be become one of the nine rain enhancements projects funded by a $15 million grant from the Ministry of Presidential Affairs to the UAE’s National Centre of Meteorology.
So far, the rain-maker fleet consists of five drones operated by trained pilots in Britain. But the drones will move to the UAE in the next few months to see how they work in the dustier, drier atmosphere of the Gulf. However that might prove to be an advantage as it means there is more electrical charge present in the air naturally, said Dr Nicoll.
The lack of rain is an age-old and constant problem for arid regions like the Gulf. It means there is precious little cultivable land for growing food and domestic water has to be obtained primarily through desalination, which is both expensive and hugely damaging to the marine environment.
Finding an alternative has become even more pressing as global warming makes the Middle East even hotter and drier.
“We are continuing to support the projects that contribute to the development of viable solutions to growing global water stress,” said Dr Abdulla Al Mandous, direct of the National Centre for Meteorology.
Despite getting less than 10 cm of rain per year – much of which is lost to evaporation because of the heat – the UAE is one of the world’s biggest consumers of water per capita.
The UAE has invested heavily in weather modification since the 1990s. Other methods which have come under consideration in the past include water trading, creating an artificial mountain to encourage more rainfall and even importing icebergs but weather modification was, and remains, the favored option.
Anna Pukas has reported from all over the world as a foreign correspondent for British media. She is now an editor based in Abu Dhabi.