Stephan De Wekker / Environmental Sciences

I am teaching courses in atmospheric science with a focus on micro and meso-scale meteorological processes in the lower atmosphere over complex terrain. Making observations of atmospheric phenomena (for example, clouds, dispersion of smoke plumes, swirling leaves in the wake of a building) is key to understanding these processes and I encourage students to keep notes of their observations and share them with class.

Recent advancements in electronics and technology have allowed the development of low-cost unmanned aerial systems (UAS) for use in environmental sciences. These systems can provide bird’s-eye views of atmospheric phenomena in a simple and cost-effective way and they have great potential to enhance our understanding of small-scale meteorological processes.

My dream idea is to work with a selected group of students (up to 12) and have them use micro quad copters to observe atmospheric phenomena. These copters have the capability of recording HD video and images and can be purchased for about $150 each. Over the semester, we will have three meetings. At the first meeting, we will discuss the use of UAS for environmental science research in general, including issues related to current Federal Aviation Administration regulations. Faculty and students from across Grounds who are also involved in UAS work will be invited to this meeting. At the second meeting, I will distribute the micro quad copters and provide the students with instructions on how to fly them and how to optimize the use of the onboard HD camera for the observation of atmospheric phenomena. Students’ assignment will be to obtain videos of atmospheric phenomena. Each student will select their best video to be posted on YouTube with a narrative (written or spoken) to describe and explain the phenomenon. At the third meeting, we will discuss these videos. After successful completion of the assignment, the students can keep the micro quad copters.

During the semester, I will also organize an excursion to Virginia Tech to visit a recently established test site for the research and development of UAS and to meet with scientists working at the test site.

Students with an interest in atmospheric sciences will be selected from a variety of classes, including students in my mountain meteorology class that I will offer in Fall 2014. Students need to write a letter of interest and provide an example of an atmospheric phenomenon they are interested in observing.


  • Micro-quad copters with camera: 12x$150 = $1,800
  • Spare parts: $250
  • Catered food for meetings 3x$150 = $450
  • 1-day excursion to Virginia Tech: rent 12-passenger van + gas + food: $500

Total: $3,000