Storm-Penetrating Drones Could Fly Into Tornadoes
Engineering students at Oklahoma State University (OSU) have designed three concept drones that could one day help storm storm trackers and researchers better understand tornadoes.
Led by professor Jamey Jacob, three teams of students outlined plans for Storm Penetrating Air Vehicles (SPAVs) that would penetrate thunderstorms, including the supercells that generate tornadoes, to collect vital meteorological data for better storm forecasting. The teams hope their SPAVs will collaborate with or ultimately replace storm chasers, who risk their lives driving after tornadoes in attempt to track down data.
Traditional forms of gathering tornado data involve the use of Doppler radar, which provides information of moisture levels. However, other measurements such as temperature gradients and pressure levels inside a tornado are still a mystery.
“Whether there’s a magic key in there, in what would be present in meteorological or thermodynamic data, we don’t know yet simply because we don’t have those type of measurements,” Jacob told Government Technology.
The SPAV designs were required to meet several standards. Each aircraft needed to be able to take off from a traditional road, fit inside a standard flat-bed trailer, take off and land in 22 MPH winds, with gusts of up to 28 MPH, fly for at least four hours at 5,000 feet without refueling and carry at least one, if not multiple, dropsondes, into the weather system.
Dropsondes are cylinders full of sensors that are dropped or carried into storms using weather balloons or aircraft. Once in the storm, the sensors collect and transmit data about temperature, humidity, wind speed and wind direction.
Remember the scene in “Twister” where the DOROTHY contraption (a replica of National Severe Storm Laboratory’s own TOTO) is finally deployed in the tornado? The dropsonde sensors are quite similar to the sensors in the movie. But the real fiction is this: storm chasers could never get as close to a tornado as they did in the movie. I recall Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt’s characters being in the vortex of two twisters. Who on Earth survives that two times? Thus a safer method — one that doesn’t involve risking human life — is in order, an order that OSU students hope to fulfill.
While the SPAVs still only exist as concepts, OSU’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering is said to be negotiating with its partners to settle on a possible multi-year project to further develop the drones. Those partners include the University of Colorado at Boulder, the University of Kentucky, Virginia Tech and the University of Oklahoma.
Image: Team Flying Honeybadgers (top) and Stormtroopers TH-64 “The Bolt” (bottom); Credit: Oklahoma State University