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.
Tornados are still devastating storms and despite advanced weather equipment, people are still often caught unawares. This type of drone will be able to give meterologists advanced information of tornados before they form and hopefully aid them in prediction, giving people more advanced notice so they can get out of harm's way sooner. The one thing these drones don't do--which was reported erroneously in other publications--is actually fly into the tornado itself. As I explain in the story, they fly into the supercells from which these storms can form.
Yes, even if it's not flying into the tornado itself, this is still dangerous business! Not sure about the lighting issue...maybe researchers have designed it with that in mind? I can't imagine they wouldn't take elements of the storm into consideration.
This is certainly an interesting project but raises questions on how these drones will handle going into severe weather conditions. Of course, NASA has its Global Hawk program that flies in to study hurricanes and wildfires. Click here for blog post on the Global Hawk program.
Elizabeth, thanks for this news about drones being used for positive, beneficial and non-military uses. This is one of several ventures aiming to show that they have beneficent applications as well as not-so-beneficent ones.
This is definitely an exciting development - especially in light of the tragic deaths of that experienced team of storm chasers in the last round of Oklahoma twisters...
I am curious though - I don't really see a sensor array on the drone. What type of sensors are used and how is the data logging accomplished? I would imagine that going into such harsh weather conditions they would need some fairly rugged sensors and a way to accurately collect data that could withstand the environmental extremes the drone would be subject to...
This is cool and timely but I don't see the need, based on the article. We know what types of storms produce tornadoes. It's seasonal and, for the most part, occurs in isolated areas (i.e. Tornado Alley).
Only the severity is unpredictable. How does a drone that measures elements that "can be useful for predicting storm development and formation" help with that?
What is the "different application" they are working on with the Department of Homeland Security?
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.
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.
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Good engineering designs are those that work in the real world; bad designs are those that don’t. If we agree to set our egos aside and let the real world be our guide, we can resolve nearly any disagreement.
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