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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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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