(CNN)With a harsh, desert climate and an average rainfall of just four inches (10 cm) a year, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) needs more freshwater. In search of a solution, it has been funding science projects from around the world to try to make it rain.
One of these projects involves using catapults to launch small unmanned aircraft which zap clouds with an electric charge. A team of scientists from the University of Reading, in the UK, initially proposed the idea in 2017. Now, the custom-built drones will soon begin tests near Dubai. The idea is that charging droplets in clouds will make them more likely to fall as rain. Photos: How drones are changing livesScroll through to see innovative drones around the world. Parrot’s Parrot Bebop-Pro Thermal drone can provide a live feed identifying heat signatures, such as those given off by a human body, or the hot spots of a burning building. As an inspection tool manually controlled by humans, it can be used by first-responders and in disaster-relief efforts. Read more.Hide Caption 1 of 19 Photos: How drones are changing livesJEM Internal Ball – No gravity? No problem. The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency’s JEM Internal Ball was dispatched to the International Space Station in June 2017 to take photos and videos of astronauts at work. If that sounds like vanity, it’s estimated ISS occupants spend approximately 10% of their working hours photographing their findings. Read more.Hide Caption 2 of 19 Photos: How drones are changing livesAmbulance Drone – Capable of speeds of 100 kmph (62 mph), Delft Technical University’s ambulance drone prototype carries a defibrillator which can be dispatched for use in the event of a heart attack. Read more.Hide Caption 3 of 19 Photos: How drones are changing livesPlan Bee – Honeybee decline is a worrying issue, integral as they are to pollination. Industrial design major Anna Haldewang has developed a drone called Plan Bee, which mimics the action of a bee, sucking pollen from one plant and expelling it onto others to enable cross-pollination. Read more. Hide Caption 4 of 19 Photos: How drones are changing livesDP Cargospeed – A rendering of a DP Cargospeed route with drones and trucks working within the supply chain. Drone delivery services are taking off in Dubai, and are just one way drones are becoming integrated into everyday life.Hide Caption 5 of 19 Photos: How drones are changing livesThe Little Ripper UAV – In January 2018 in New South Wales, Australia, the Little Ripper UAV proved vital in rescuing two men caught in rough surf. Lifeguards used the drone to drop an inflatable life preserver in minutes, which the swimmers clung on to to make it to shore. Read more. Hide Caption 6 of 19 Photos: How drones are changing livesAirdog ADII – In extreme sports, headcams are so passé. The Airdog ADII drone will follow riders on snow, water, dirt track — wherever — using a GPS-enabled wristband capturing aerial shots while you make your aerial moves. Read more.Hide Caption 7 of 19 Photos: How drones are changing livesVolocopter – Dubai is a playground for future transport prototypes. The 18-rotor autonomous Volocopter was trialled in the emirate in 2017 and reportedly has a flight time of 30 minutes and cruising speed of 30 mph — enough to get you from the airport to the Burj Al Arab with time to spare. Read more.Hide Caption 8 of 19 Photos: How drones are changing livesAmazon Prime Air – Amazon has been making significant headway in drone deliveries, with the first drop in the UK occurring in 2016. In 2017 a patent application emerged showing details of a system for safe air drop in back yards — even involving tiny parachutes. Read more.Hide Caption 9 of 19 Photos: How drones are changing livesUPS – Amazon isn’t the only delivery company dipping into drones. UPS demonstrated a human-drone tag team system with integrated storage and launch facilities built into one of their iconic brown vans. Read more.Hide Caption 10 of 19 Photos: How drones are changing livesSkyDrive – Still in development, the SkyDrive from the Cartivator Project, a Tokyo non-profit, hopes to play a key part in the 2020 Olympic Games. With three wheels and four rotors, the car-drone hybrid will hopefully be the vehicle of choice for the lucky individual tasked with lighting the Olympic flame. Read More.Hide Caption 11 of 19 Photos: How drones are changing livesZipline – Drone medication delivery in the developing world is an increasingly hot topic. Rwanda has embraced the technology and approved the world’s first drone port, while manufacturer Zipline is working with the Ministry of Health to supply pockets of the country with much-needed items — starting with blood. Read more.Hide Caption 12 of 19 Photos: How drones are changing livesFlirtey – In Virginia, 2015, an Australian-made Flirtey drone was approved to supplying a rural pop-up clinic with medication. Read more.Hide Caption 13 of 19 Photos: How drones are changing livesHubsan X4 – Drone racing is a big deal. It has its own series — the Drone Racing League — featured on ESPN, and is a fast-growing sport. The Hubsan X4 has a point-of-view camera and some nifty moves. Read more.Hide Caption 14 of 19 Photos: How drones are changing livesWorkhorse SureFly – With eight rotors and two seats, the SureFly is one of the larger drone taxi prototypes out there. Touted as a replacement for the helicopter, its makers aim for a competitive target price of $200,000. Watch more.Hide Caption 15 of 19 Photos: How drones are changing livesGimBall – The GimBall won the $1 million first prize in the 2015 “Drones for Good” competition. It is designed to access hard-to-reach areas such as burning buildings and nuclear disaster sites. Its robust outer structure means it is the first “collision-tolerant” drone in the world, according to is creators — Swiss company Flyability. Read more.Hide Caption 16 of 19 Photos: How drones are changing livesRaining beer – An ill-feted venture in Minnesota saw ice fishers and local brewers rebuked for using drones to deliver beer cases in 2014. Beer company Lakemaid ran afoul of the Federal Aviation Administration because flying drones for commercial purposes at 400 feet or higher was against the law. Stock up on dry land next time, guys. Read more. Hide Caption 17 of 19 Photos: How drones are changing livesAerix Aerius – Manufacturers once boasted of drones that could fit in the palm of your hand. The Aerix Aerius takes that claim to new levels with this, the world’s smallest quadcopter at just 1.2-inches wide. Ok, so it might not change your life, but other small drones, like the PD-100 Black Hornet, used by the US military, could. Read more.Hide Caption 18 of 19 Photos: How drones are changing livesBlade Nano QX – The Blade Nano QX is small by name, small in nature. Without a camera it’s one for drone puritans and like Mihir Garimella’s Google Science Fair-winning invention, is well equipped to avoid obstacles mid-flight. Read more.Hide Caption 19 of 19“There’s been a lot of speculation about what charge might do to cloud droplets, but there’s been very little practical and detailed investigation,” says Keri Nicoll, one of the core investigators on the project. The aim is to determine if the technology can increase rainfall rates in water-stressed regions.Read MoreNicoll’s team started by modelling the behavior of clouds. They found that when cloud droplets have a positive or negative electrical charge, the smaller droplets are more likely to merge and grow to become big raindrops.The size of the raindrops is important, says Nicoll, because in places like the UAE which has high clouds and high temperatures, droplets often evaporate as they fall.”What we are trying to do is to make the droplets inside the clouds big enough so that when they fall out of the cloud, they survive down to the surface,” says Nicoll.The proposal was chosen to receive a $1.5 million grant distributed over three years by the UAE Research Program for Rain Enhancement Science, an initiative run by the National Center of Meteorology. Read: An Israeli cowboy hopes cattle-herding drones will modernize the livestock industryTo test out the model, Nicoll and her team built four aircraft with a wingspan of two meters. These are launched from a catapult, have a full autopilot system, and can fly for around 40 minutes.Each aircraft has sensors for measuring temperature, charge, and humidity, as well as charge emitters — the part that does the zapping — that were developed with the University of Bath in the UK.The unmanned aircraft carry sensors and charge emitters. So far, testing has been conducted in the UK and Finland, and ground-based measurements of cloud properties taken in the UAE. The research has been published in the Journal of Atmospheric and Oceanic Technology.Because the pandemic meant Nicoll’s team couldn’t travel to the UAE, they have trained operators from a flight school in Dubai to use their aircraft. They’re now waiting for the right weather conditions to complete the tests. Cloud seeding As climate change alters weather patterns, causing severe droughts in some places and floods in others, there is a growing interest in how to control the weather. According to the World Wildlife Fund, two thirds of the world’s population may face water shortages by 2025. While the University of Reading project is coming to an end this year, Nicoll wants future projects to combine charging clouds with cloud seeding — an existing weather modification technique where drones inject particles of silver iodide or salt into clouds to encourage them to rain or snow. Nicoll says using charged salt particles could make cloud seeding more efficient.Alya Al Mazroui, director of the UAE Research Program for Rain Enhancement Science, says the organization is already experimenting with cloud seeding. “An increasing number of countries have invested in weather modification research and applications, particularly those in arid regions such as the UAE,” she says. Photos: The Middle East and North Africa's battle against water scarcity Water scarcity – Earth’s surface is 71 percent water, but the Middle East and North Africa have access to barely any of it. The region is the most water-scarce in the world, home to just one percent of the world’s freshwater resources.Hide Caption 1 of 14 Photos: The Middle East and North Africa's battle against water scarcity Groundwater – Countries in the region are withdrawing water from underground reservoirs faster than it can be replenished. This is mainly to irrigate farmland: agriculture accounts for nearly 80% of water usage in MENA, according to a report from the World Bank.Pictured here: Crop circles in Saudi Arabia draw on groundwater for irrigation. Hide Caption 2 of 14 Photos: The Middle East and North Africa's battle against water scarcity Groundwater – Libya relies on its subterranean aquifers. Since 1991, the Great Man-Made River — a network of underground pipes — has carried groundwater from southern Libya to places like the Ajdabiya reservoir, pictured here, on the northern coast.Hide Caption 3 of 14 Photos: The Middle East and North Africa's battle against water scarcity Desalination – To overcome water scarcity and meet increasing demand, MENA countries have long been producing their own water. A popular method is to separate salt from seawater in a process called desalination. Approximately 75% of worldwide desalinated water is produced in MENA, at plants like this one in Tel Aviv, Israel. Hide Caption 4 of 14 Photos: The Middle East and North Africa's battle against water scarcity Desalination – MENA accounts for nearly half of the world’s desalination capacity, according to World Bank calculations, making it the largest desalination market in the world. Desalination is widely practiced in the oil-rich nations of the Gulf, at plants like this one in Qatar.Hide Caption 5 of 14 Photos: The Middle East and North Africa's battle against water scarcity Desalination – According to the International Desalination Association, more than 300 million people around the world rely on desalinated water for their everyday needs.Hide Caption 6 of 14 Photos: The Middle East and North Africa's battle against water scarcity Desalination – But desalination in the Middle East has a significant environmental cost because it relies on energy-intensive thermal desalination plants. Waste left over from the process is often discharged into the sea and can damage marine ecosystems. Here, discharge from a plant in Kuwait flows into the Persian Gulf.Hide Caption 7 of 14 Photos: The Middle East and North Africa's battle against water scarcity Wastewater treatment – Another nonconventional water resource is treated wastewater. Wastewater is typically recycled at treatment plants, like this one in Jordan, for use in irrigation.Hide Caption 8 of 14 Photos: The Middle East and North Africa's battle against water scarcity Wastewater treatment – Physical, chemical and biological processes are used to remove contaminants from wastewater.Hide Caption 9 of 14 Photos: The Middle East and North Africa's battle against water scarcity Wastewater treatment – However, according to a World Bank report, 57 percent of the wastewater collected in MENA is returned to the environment untreated. Hide Caption 10 of 14 Photos: The Middle East and North Africa's battle against water scarcity Cloud seeding – The United Arab Emirates has invested in another solution to tackle the water problem — rainfall-enhancing technology called cloud seeding. During cloud seeding missions, aircraft eject salt crystals from flares mounted on their wings to stimulate condensation and the growth of water droplets.Hide Caption 11 of 14 Photos: The Middle East and North Africa's battle against water scarcity Cloud seeding – The UAE conducted 242 cloud seeding missions in 2017, the National Center of Meteorology and Seismology told CNN. Hide Caption 12 of 14 Photos: The Middle East and North Africa's battle against water scarcity Cloud seeding – “Rain enhancement has the potential to offer a more cost effective, sustainable and much less environmentally damaging option than other solutions, such as desalination,” Alya Al Mazroui, Director of the UAE Research Program for Rain Enhancement Science told CNN. The salts used for seeding are “no more toxic than table salts,” she added.Hide Caption 13 of 14 Photos: The Middle East and North Africa's battle against water scarcity Rainwater harvesting – Rainwater harvesting is another low-cost solution in the region whereby rainwater runoff is collected, filtered and stored for use. Such measures have been used for millennia in the region, according to the World Bank. Tanks and cisterns — such as this one in Yemen — provide important supply sources for many rural and urban communities.Hide Caption 14 of 14The UAE conducted 242 cloud seeding missions in 2017, according to the National Center of Meteorology. In 2018, Al Mazroui told CNN that rain enhancement could offer a more cost-effective and environmentally friendly solution to water security than alternatives like desalination, where salt is removed from seawater. The UAE has one of the largest desalination operations in the world, with huge quantities of brine produced as a byproduct. But discharging brine into the sea can harm marine life. Other countries that have heavily invested in cloud seeding include the US and China. The latter announced last December that it would expand its weather modification program to cover an area of over 5.5 million square kilometers. The UAE has successfully launched the Arab world's first Mars missionWhile cloud seeding as a concept has been around for decades, there has been little research showing its effectiveness. One study funded by the US National Science Foundation in early 2020 found that seeding with silver iodide could increase snowfall.But there are questions over whether seeding clouds in one location might take rain away from another location, and the long-term environmental impacts of silver iodide. The process is also very expensive. “There’s still a long way to go to definitively see how effective cloud seeding weather modification is at enhancing rainfall,” says Nicoll. But we may soon be one step closer to finding out how effective cloud zapping can be.
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