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.
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.
Speaking of using military applications and storms, any chance that detonating a large fuel-air explosion inside of the storm cell could disrupt a tornado? Crazy thoughts I know, but stopping these horrible storms would be even better than just monitoring them.
This is certainly a perfect application for drones (keeps the scientists and engineers at a safer distance than storm chasers normally are). But, weather is chaotic, and at some point knowing more specifics about weather's behavior won't lead to a better ability to predict its behavior. I doubt we are at that point of understanding yet, so this is a pursuit well worth taking.
But, the real application of drones (I predict) will be in swarm formations. Imagine 50 to 100 drones buzzing about a super cell, waiting for the tell that a funnel is forming (that's the same tell they are trying to discover now). When one detects the tell, they all go into unified action, disrupting the funnel before it can fully form. As I said, weather is chaotic, so it takes very little to disrupt large events before they can gather enough momentum to be self sustaining (so this is very possible). One day ...
Elizabeth, I don't think lightning is a problem for planes of any type (when properly designed, of course). The trick is the fuselage must be conductive enough to create a faraday cage. With composites, that may be tricky (fiberglass is obviously not a good choice). Are fuselages made of carbon fibers naturally conductive? Or do you have to play tricks with it to get good conductivity?
I think about this everytime I'm in my convertable when the clouds look ominous. Is the metal frame in the roof (when up) conductive enough to those riding in my car should it be struck?
Tornadoes can occur literally anywhere. Some of the worst have been in the southern states where tree cover obscures the view of the horizon until the beast is upon them. Tornado alley is only the region where the probability is highest. Also, the season for tornadoes can be as early as April running into October. Half the year.
Storm chasers risk their lives doing the thing that radar can't: visually confirming the funnel and reporting its location and behavior. Often, the only deaths in a tornado are the storm chasers. As everyone takes cover, they risk themselves for the benefit of others. Hail, extreme winds and flying debris (branches, roofing materials, car parts) are often nearly as deadly as the funnel itself.
A drone aircraft gives a better field of view free from ground obstructions. It should be an excellent supplement to storm trackers without putting another person at risk. I, too, am interested in what kinds of instruments they will try on this platform. I think the picture is a stock photo. The actual planes may look different and evolve as they will surely try and fail several prototypes to gather better information at very little risk.
Hi, again, TJ. When I asked Jamey Jacob about how they designed the drone for storm elements, he mentioned the carbon fiber, fiberglass, and Kevlar that the drone was made of. I am not sure if these would protect instruments against lightning? I can follow up and see what he says.
Hi, Nancy, from the photos I've viewed of the drone, they seem to be inside the body of it. I am not sure about their ruggedness but I imagine researchers are definitely taking that into consideration and ensuring they can withstand the elements within the storm cell to take accurate readings. I did ask, but did not receive an answer, although the materials used for the hull of the craft, as mentioned in the story, are being optimized to protect it during severe weather.
NadineJ, it's my understanding (and maybe I'm wrong?) that not all supercells form tornados, and the drones are meant to take temperature/atmospheric pressure and other measurements etc. that meterologists use to predict if a tornado will form out of a particular supercell. They are still working on the technology so I imagine this will get tweaked as the research goes on.
In terms of the other applications, my source did not say...I imagine since it's with the Department of Homeland Security, at this point it might not be public information.
My pleasure, Ann. I, too, am happy to see when drones can be used for something other than spy missions or dropping bombs during war engagements. The most interesting uses for me are things like this, as well as search-and-rescue-type endeavors, which I believe also is another use being eyed for them.
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