Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Tornado-mapping drones in the skies

Controversial tech targeting storms

  • Print

TULSA, Okla. — At the time it premiered, the film Twister put forth a fantastical science fiction idea: Release probes into a storm in order to figure out which tornadoes could develop into killers.

It's no longer fiction. Oklahoma State University researchers are designing and building sleek, Kevlar-reinforced unmanned aircraft — or drones — to fly directly into the worst storms and send back real-time data to first responders and forecasters.

"We have all the elements in place that make this the right place for this study to occur," said Stephen McKeever, Oklahoma's secretary of science and technology. "We have the world's best natural laboratory."

Oklahoma is the heart of Tornado Alley and has emerged battered, yet standing, from seven tornadoes with winds exceeding 320 km/h — tied with Alabama for the most EF5 storms recorded. EF5 is the most powerful storm on the scale measuring tornado strength.

The May 20 tornado in Moore that killed 24 people was one of them. The U.S. federal government's National Weather Center, with its laboratories and the Storm Prediction Center, are appropriately headquartered in Norman, Okla., but research is done statewide on Earth's most powerful storms.

If all goes as planned, OSU's research drones will detect the making of a tornado based on the humidity, pressure and temperature data collected while travelling through the guts of a storm -- critical details that could increase lead time in severe weather forecasts.

The drones would also be equipped to finally answer meteorologists' most pressing questions.

"Why does one storm spawn a tornado and the other doesn't, and why does one tornado turn into an EF1 and another into an EF5?" asked Jamey Jacob, professor at OSU's School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, which is developing the technology.

The drones could be operating in roughly five years, designers estimate. But there are limitations on immediately using the technology, including current Federal Aviation Administration rules that mandate where and how drones can be safely launched in U.S. airspace. The agency's regulations also require operators of such machines to physically see the aircraft at all times, limiting the range to 1.6 to 3.2 kilometres.

Developers are seeking to get the same clearances as the military, where operators don't have to see the aircraft at all times and can view data beamed via a satellite link.

The machines -- which weigh up to 22.5 kilograms -- are safely controlled by operators with a laptop or iPad, cost a fraction of manned-research aircraft and are more reliable than sending up weather balloons to divine a storm's intentions. In its simplest form, a weather drone would go for about $10,000, researchers said, but models with more extensive storm-detecting equipment -- like having the ability to drop sensors as it flies through a storm -- could run $100,000.

Jacob started researching the need for such aircraft more than 20 years ago while an undergraduate at the University of Oklahoma, and arrived at OSU about seven years ago to continue his research. As a native Oklahoman with a long-held interest in the weather, developing the perfect storm-savvy technology has become a passion for him.

"Technology has really been catching up to what we wanted to do," he said in an interview. And in the future, the drones could be used to monitor wildfires and send back information to firefighters so they don't get outflanked by the blazes, or they could fly over farmers' crops to relay enhanced pictures of how well they are growing.

One of the storm models was supposed to have its test flight on the day of the Moore tornado. It was delayed by two days -- to great success. Immediately after, OSU researchers posted a video of its flight on YouTube.

To researchers' dismay, drones have developed a negative connotation lately, as some groups concerned about civil liberties strongly question the Obama administration's use of armed Predator drones overseas as well as privacy issues. So, the weather researchers prefer "unmanned aircraft" to describe what they are working on, even though the word drone is also accurate.

"It's so sad to me because I see the negatives people are always talking about... and our goals are the exact opposite," said Jacob Stockton, a master's student at OSU who is working on the project. "It's extremely rewarding to take the perspective that my work is being poured into helping others to avoid the tragedy that happened" at Moore, he said.

 

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 2, 2013 A3

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes

    No

  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

LATEST VIDEO

Key of Bart: 2014 Year in Review

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • Two baby tigers were unveiled at the Assiniboine Park Zoo this morning, October 3rd, 2011. (TREVOR HAGAN/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
  • Young goslings are growing up quickly near Cresent Lake in Portage La Prairie, Manitoba- See Bryksa 30 Day goose project- Day 11- May 15, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

View More Gallery Photos

Poll

Do you think the provincial NDP’s approval rating could drop below the current 26 per cent?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google