Smartphone app makes cloud seeding operations easier, more accurate

CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY (MindaNews / 14 Apr) – Whereas cloud seeders used to rely mainly on two-way radios to do their jobs of locating seedable clouds and dispatching aircraft to distribute salt up in the air, the advent of smartphones and apps with geotagging capabilities have made the job easier and far more accurate.

MindaNews observed how a team of cloud seeders from the Philippine Air Force (PAF) and the Department of Agriculture (DA) did their job from their base at the old Lumba Airport here last Tuesday using this latest technology that has now become accessible to the masses.

Huddled inside the old abandoned passenger terminal building at Lumbia, Engineer Jocel Mendoza, her assistant and two PAF technicians wait for word from “spotters” scattered across the province of Bukidnon who would tell them where to dump their next load of rain-inducing salt.

Mendoza and her team are aware that people, farmers especially, pinned so much hope on their cloud seeding operations: a prolonged drought have left much agricultural lands into dusty bowls.

Hungry farmers had blocked a major highway in Kidapawan City and the resulting violence killed a few of them and many more were injured in the ensuing clash with the police.

Members of the cloud seeding team sat on plastic chairs in the dilapidated building and anxiously waited for the text messages from the “cloud watchers” spread across Bukidnon.

“We are looking for cumulus or cumulonimbus types of clouds. These are the clouds that we can easily induce to rain,” said Mendoza of the DA’s Bureau of Soil and Water Management.

Before noon, Mendoza started receiving a flurry of text messages from the “cloud watchers.”

At least 45 cloud watchers or spotters have undergone a two-day training of the DA in Cagayan de Oro where they learned how to identify the types of clouds in their localities.

The workshop came after the provincial government of Bukidnon declared a state of calamity and sought the DA’s help for cloud seeding operations.

The “cloud watchers” take pictures of the clouds using GeoCam, an app that can be freely downloaded from the Google Play store.

The pictures are then sent to Mendoza and the cloud seeding team via yahoo messenger where they are posted on their group chat especially created for the cloud watchers.

With the GPS on the cloud watchers’ smartphones enabled, it is easy for Mendoza’s team to spot the exact location of the clouds.

When Mendoza receives the pictures on her smartphone, she and the two PAF weather technicians would analyze the images carefully.

They try to match them with other data they could retrieve from the station of the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) in El Salvador town, Misamis Oriental.

“We match the pictures with the data about humidity, temperature and wind direction that we receive from the PAGASA station,” Mendoza said.

After analyzing the pictures during their operation last Tuesday, Mendoza and the PAF technicians concluded that the clouds over Manolo Fortich town in Bukidnon were “ripe for seeding.”

They gave the information to the crew of the Baron Beechcraft plane owned by the Royhle Air Way Charter of Dumaguete City, which is contracted by the DA to conduct cloud seeding operations in Bukidnon, General Santos City and Tacurong City in Sultan Kudarat since January this year.

Fifteen sacks of salt were loaded to the twin-prop plane and its Indian pilot, Aks Gopal, prepared the aircraft to fly.

The space inside the aircraft is cramped with the big wooden box filled with salt occupying its interior. A duct is manually operated to drop the salt mid-air.

Because of space considerations, only Gopal, his co-pilot and one of the PAF technicians could board the aircraft. The technician will operate the duct once the cloud seeding starts.

Gopal said flying a plane into a big cloud formation to drop a load of rain-inducing salt is “risky business.”

“It is like we are trying to defy death so others can eat,” Gopal said.

“But safety is always our main concern. If I do not feel right, I will move away from the clouds,” he added.

Gopal said he will take his plane up to 10,000 feet and “fly beside the clouds” and then drop the load of salt.

He said in Bukidnon, it is dangerous to fly inside the clouds because the mountains tower up to 10,000 feet.

“The best altitude to drop the salt is between 8,000 and 10,000 feet,” Gopal said.

Cloud seeding is a form of weather modification by introducing salt to the clouds to induce precipitation or rain.

PAGASA Bukidnon station chief Cesar Caballes said Malaybalay City and the towns of Talakag, Pangantukan, Kibawe and Manolo Fortich have experienced some rain thanks to the cloud seeding operations.

Caballes said 5.9 millimeters of rain was recorded in these areas last week. He said the normal rainfall for the month of April is about 25 millimeters.

“We need more rain. The farmers in Bukidnon are already reeling because of the prolonged drought,” he said.