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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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...
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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 ...
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.
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.
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?
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.
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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