In a world first, China fires powerful weather rocket from a sea drone

31 Jan 2019

The uncrewed semi-submersible vehicle developed by the Chinese Academy of Sciences with rocketsonde on board. Image: Siping Zheng

For the first time ever, China has launched a weather rocket from a drone semi-submersible in the Yellow Sea.

For decades, we have been using weather balloons to gather important weather data from kilometres above, but sometimes even these cannot get the information we need. For example, getting accurate meteorological and oceanographic data requires conducting ocean-based meteorological and oceanographic sampling of nearly three-quarters of the Earth’s surface.

This has traditionally been done using an extensive array of buoys, ships, aircraft and satellites. However, the logistics involved and challenges of hostile environments have led to the development of ‘weather rockets’ called rocketsonde capable of recording at altitudes as high as 8,000 metres.

Now, publishing their findings in the journal Advances in Atmospheric Sciences, researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences announced the world’s first launch of a rocketsonde from a semi-submersible drone.

“Launched from a long-duration unmanned semi-submersible vehicle, with strong mobility and large coverage of the sea area, rocketsonde can be used under severe sea conditions and will be more economical and applicable in the future,” said lead author Hongbin Chen.

The paper’s co-author, Dr Jun Li, added: “The unmanned semi-submersible vehicle is an ideal platform for marine meteorological environmental monitoring, and the atmospheric profile information provided by rocketsonde launched from this platform can improve the accuracy of numerical weather forecasts at sea and in coastal zones.”

The rocketsonde are expected to outperform both types of weather balloon currently operating, those being the dropsonde, which are carried to high altitudes and released to descend back to Earth; and driftsonde, which are enclosed in a gondola to be carried by winds. Both types are capable of operating between five days and a few months, but they cannot meet the needs of marine weather such as typhoons or fog.

The research team is now working towards a new sea drone that can carry various sensors including motion sensors and wave height readers that would work in tandem with the rocketsonde.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic