It is difficult to predict weather forecasts in highly snowy areas. The steep and slippery terrain makes it impossible for a manual survey of a given hill or site. Sending manned aerial vehicles like helicopters are not only too expensive but also proves to be a tedious task in harsh weather. If not well informed about the snowy build-up, it can prove to be dangerous for trekkers, skiers, and tourists. Thus, drones have once again, proven to be the aptest solution. These nifty flyers may help predict catastrophic avalanches.

They can look out for unstable ground

Scientists in Montanna are turning their attention to drones to get the job done. They are using drones to help predict accurate forecasts over snowy mountains. Peitzsch, a physical scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, described a test drone to be extremely stable as he flew it over a cliff.

Montanna is abundant in snow proliferated mountains. They shed their loosely held snowpacks all of a sudden which sometimes turn into deadly avalanches. Thus, forecasters spend each winter and spring assessing the risk of these events. These scientists aim to merge their scientific knowledge with modern drone technology to achieve this. Peitzsch and his colleagues are using drones to track one key aspect of avalanches: snow depth.

drones may help predict avalanches

As snowstorms continue to hit the area one after another, several layers of snow get accumulated on these slopes. The layers have different strengths, weights, and thicknesses. Avalanche forecasters study these layers to determine the weakest ones which might crumble. Their carefully studied data help backcountry travelers know what to watch for.

An intricate combination of drones and AI

So drones fly back and forth, systematically capturing overlapping photos of the entire slope. Once the overlapping images of that region are taken, they are put into a processing software that analyzes them. Then using that data, a point cloud (a 3-D mesh of data points in the shape of the terrain) is created. Finally, each of those data point’s exact position, including elevation, is recorded.

A point cloud creates a digital surface model of the slope. By comparing new digital surface models to previous ones, avalanche forecasters can gauge the amount of snow that has fallen since. Also, how the load over those slopes will affect the terrain.

point cloud created from images captured by a drone
A sample point cloud of a mountainous terrain.

The team has had to face many unforeseen challenges to get their data. A bald eagle was spotted at the cliff, thus the team had to pull back. Later, a flock of birds ambushed the drone, forcing the team to withdraw their flight. The federal government shutdown had also stalled their efforts for quite some time.

Drone technology is said to make forecasting a notch easier for them. However, scientists claim that they will still have to dig pits and perform site testing apart from the drone’s footage as a mandatory procedure. Combining the best of both worlds could prevent or rather timely inform people of incoming disasters.