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How drones might help track tornadoes

Filed by KOSU News in Feature.
June 10, 2013

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Image courtesy News on 6. The following story was written by KOSU’s Quinton Chandler.


OSU students recently designed an unmanned aircraft that could potentially fly inside a tornadic storm and send information back to its pilots. They believe the vehicle could, increase warning times and help predict where a tornado will touch down if it does at all. But, KOSU’s Quinton Chandler reports the drone will have to jump some hurdles before it can fly in tornado alley.

“We still lack a really detailed understanding of when a storm system is going to form a tornado and more importantly where and how strong that tornado is going to be?”

“At the very least we want to improve warning times by 5 to 10 minutes and hopefully in the future improve warning time by hours.”

After May 20th and every other tornado the question gets asked: What if? What if Moore had gotten an even better tornado warning?

“One of the things we’d like to be able to do is get better data to help meteorologists improve their forecasts and predictive capabilities. Things like temperature, pressure, humidity…”

OSU Professor Jamey Jacob and his mechanical aerospace engineering students design could be a huge breakthrough for storm warnings. If their UAV is built, pilots will remotely fly a small fleet of the aircraft into storm systems to collect the data meteorologists can’t get from radar. There are no guarantees here. They are just hoping it leads to better predictions.

“There are regions of the storm being fed with just dry air so the radar has a difficult if not impossible time detecting it. So it remains kind of a black box.”

Professor Chilson says being able to fly a UAV into that black box would be an invaluable asset to meteorologists. He teaches meteorology for OU and his department will help fill in a few gaps for Jacob’s students.

“We do have the weather expertise and OSU has a very strong aeronautic program. And they’re very capable of building an aircraft that could penetrate these storms. I have zero doubt that it can be built and it can work.”

I decided to check out the program and see for myself what Jacob’s students were capable of building. Let’s start off with Ben Lo’s Death Star.

“It’s basically a flying sphere that can hover like a helicopter and then fly like a plane. The best thing is that it can roll on the ground. And then it has the ability to come back up right.

Ben says his death star could be used for search and rescue because it can go where other vehicles can’t. This and the dozens of other aircraft displayed on the department’s walls make a pretty convincing case for these future engineers ability to make a storm chaser. But, Professors Chilson and Jacob say building it was never the problem.

“Right now the FAA’s mandate is to protect the airspace. So they’re training cautiously on how to integrate the unmanned vehicles with the piloted aircraft.”

“You have to go through a certification process with the FAA and actually have some sort of idea beforehand where and when you want to fly.”

That warning may have to come one to two days in advance.

“And that’s a big issue right now. That makes it very problematic to be able to fly one of these things into a developing thunderstorm in the near future.”

Jacob thinks the rules will relax a bit once the FAA has found a way to safely integrate UAV’s and manned aircraft. But that will take a couple of years at least.

Les Dorr, an FAA spokesman, says the clincher is the technology and infrastructure to integrate UAV’s isn’t there and no one really knows what safe integration looks like. A law signed by President Obama last year gives them until September 2015 to figure it out. In the meantime Jacob and his students will keep working.

“Long term goal is obviously to be able to build these systems and put them in the air. Short term we hope to have a platform that we can use in the next year or so.”

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