Estimating Turbulent Surface Fluxes from Small Unmanned Aircraft: Evaluation of Current Abilities

Thursday, 18 December 2014
Gijs de Boer1, Dale Lawrence1, Jack Elston1, John J Cassano1, James Mack1, Norman Wildmann2, Melissa A Nigro1, Mark Ivey3, Daniel E Wolfe1 and Andreas Muschinski4, (1)University of Colorado at Boulder, Boulder, CO, United States, (2)University of Tübingen, Tübingen, Germany, (3)Sandia National Labs, Albuquerque, NM, United States, (4)NorthWest Research Associates Boulder, Boulder, CO, United States
Heat transfer between the atmosphere and Earth’s surface represents a key component to understanding Earth energy balance, making it important in understanding and simulating climate. Arguably, the oceanic air-sea interface and Polar sea-ice-air interface are amongst the most challenging in which to measure these fluxes. This difficulty results partially from challenges associated with infrastructure deployment on these surfaces and partially from an inability to obtain spatially representative values over a potentially inhomogeneous surface.

Traditionally sensible (temperature) and latent (moisture) fluxes are estimated using one of several techniques. A preferred method involves eddy-correlation where cross-correlation between anomalies in vertical motion (w) and temperature (T) or moisture (q) is used to estimate heat transfer. High-frequency measurements of these quantities can be derived using tower-mounted instrumentation. Such systems have historically been deployed over land surfaces or on ships and buoys to calculate fluxes at the air-land or air-sea interface, but such deployments are expensive and challenging to execute, resulting in a lack of spatially diverse measurements. A second (“bulk”) technique involves the observation of horizontal windspeed, temperature and moisture at a given altitude over an extended time period in order to estimate the surface fluxes.

Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS) represent a unique platform from which to derive these fluxes. These sUAS can be small (~1 m), lightweight (~700 g), low cost (~$2000) and relatively easy to deploy to remote locations and over inhomogeneous surfaces. We will give an overview of the ability of sUAS to provide measurements necessary for estimating surface turbulent fluxes. This discussion is based on flights in the vicinity of the 1000 ft. Boulder Atmospheric Observatory (BAO) tower, and over the US Department of Energy facility at Oliktok Point, Alaska. We will present initial comparisons between UAS-derived turbulent fluxes and those derived from tower-based instrumentation and discuss differences in the context of sensor technology and flight patterns employed to collect data.