The recent havoc wreaked by tornadoes in Oklahoma shows again just how destructive and terrorizing these storms can be and how better predictive technology is needed. Oklahoma State University students working to solve this problem have developed the ultimate storm chaser -- a drone that can fly into the storms and send data back to meteorologists.
Jamey Jacob, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at OSU, told us that the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) can penetrate severe thunderstorms, including the supercells from which tornadoes can develop. Once inside the storm, "the vehicles measure parameters pertinent to meteorologists, namely pressure, temperature, humidity, and wind speed, that can be useful for predicting storm development and formation."
Mechanical and aerospace engineering students at Oklahoma State University have developed a drone that can fly into severe thunderstorms like the ones that spawn tornadoes. (Source: Oklahoma State University)
Jacob's students developed the tornado-exploring UAV as part of a class project to tackle real-world design problems, but he actually began working on the technology as an undergraduate back in the 1980s. OSU student engineers have been working on UAV technology for more than a decade but only recently started work again on vehicle designs for weather prediction and exploration, he said.
The UAV was developed using a number of materials, including composites like carbon fiber, fiberglass, and Kevlar, to make it durable enough to withstand flights into supercells. It is not designed to fly directly into a tornado itself, but it measures the conditions from which a tornado will form.
These type of drones -- Jacob and his team are working on a number of concepts and prototypes -- could be used to improve predictions for tornadoes, giving people more warning and a better chance at protecting themselves. "The vehicles will gather data that can be used to improve numerical weather models and hence forecasting. Ideally, improvements in these models would allow warning to increase substantially over where it is currently."
Jacob and his team are working on a number of other UAVs, including Talos, a vehicle that was developed in collaboration with the Department of Homeland Security for a different application but could be adapted for storm forecasting. Its recently completed test flight is shown in the video below. He said he and his team are working with partners at other universities to secure development funding to continue their work, and they are seeking permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly their drones.
"Oklahoma State University students working to solve this problem have developed the ultimate storm chaser -- a drone that can fly into the storms and send data back to meteorologists. "
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Very interesting post Elizabeth. In the late ' 60s, I did a TDY at Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas. It was in late March; prime tornado weather for that part of the country. Around 2:00 in the morning the alert sirens sounded indicating a tornado had been spotted. We all hurried down into the shelters to wait until the all-clear sounded. We had maybe 5 minutes to get underground before the tornado hit. We were there for about 20 minutes and when we came "top-side", we discovered the tornado had hit two hangers and basically destroyed several aircraft stationed inside for maintenance and repairs. This was an F-2 and yet it bent and twisted aircraft as though they were toys. Any thing that can be done to provide greater warning and more time to react is greatly needed. I suspect Homeland Security intended the drones for keeping track of citizens but this is an excellent use of the technology.
Thanks, Elizabeth - I am curious as to what he has to say. I had a friend that used to design and build industrial weather stations out of his home and I designed a wind rose as a student project back in my school days so I am really interested in these types of designs that involve monitoring weather parameters...it will be interesting to see what he says.
Your comments and concerns are warranted, I think, Thinking_J. I didn't really think of the potential negative consequences of this, but you're right, there are probably a lot of reasons why this technology isn't such a good idea. I'm sure malfunctions in such dire conditions are definitely possible. We can only hope that if this technology is put to actual use that the inventors take as much precaution as they can to avoid any of these issues.
It's my pleasure, Nancy. I really enjoy writing about these types of innovations and am always impressed by what the really clever people in this world are dreaming up! I sent an email to Jamey yesterday so let's see what he says. I'll post a comment when I get his reply.
Thanks, Elizabeth - It would be interesting to understand the sensing and data logging mechanisms, especially under such extreme conditions. Hopefully you will hear back. Thanks as always for reporting on such interesting and potentially valuable technologies!
I applaude the effort ... but I have serious reservations in it being approved to be used.
As pointed out in other comments.. not quite sure what additional info would be gained.
Their use of a micro turbine implies they intend to work at higher alitudes (where turbines work better than props)..,.otherwise why use a $3-5K engine when a $200 one will work?
I really have questions concerning .... fast enough to get to event before it is over vs launching near event (still requiring storm chasers?)... dwell time vs speed in smaller craft (likely tornado .. 300 miles away.. can it get there in less than 1 hour and still fly around long enough to be useful and return to base?)
I have seen turbine RC aircraft .. good for 200-300 mph.. the FAA will not let them fly outside visual range of operator (~400 ft). At what point does a drone become a cruse missle?
Then there is that subject of .. adding debri to the funnel when a craft gets 'sucked in' ... or simply having problems and falling out of the sky - into a school yard - while on the way to an event a 100 miles away?
Search and rescue operations are one non-military humanitarian app for drones, but there are other related ones, like post-disaster real-time aerial photography in support of S&R, or scientific apps like topo mapping.
Unless the wings are solid carbon fiber the aspect ratio seems too high for an aircraft with a mission to fly into high wind speeds. The wings seem too flexible for this. As far as instrumentation, very little needs to hang out of the drone and be visible, It can all be built into the aircraft body contours. The tornado near El Reno proved it is too dangerous for people on the ground. I think a data logger could be built in for later recovery to fill in the gaps due to radio interference. I think it's a neat application though.
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