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Weather drones: New technology in forecasting

Friday, June 14, 2013, 3:00 PM -

Have you ever wondered what storm chasers do? 

Growing up I always thought storm chasing would be similar to the movie Twister. I thought storm chasers would follow storms and tornadoes, take picture and videos, and -- most importantly -- try to use probes to collect data. For years I thought that this was the reality for storm chasers. And although the idea of putting probes in the parts of tornadoes where the real data is to be mined, it was easier said than done. But recent technology may say otherwise. 

Currently at Oklahoma State University, researchers are working on drones that will fly into severe storms and collect data that will be sent back to meteorologists and first-responders in real time. The information that is captured from these storms would help the weather community collect data to understand more about storms, specifically tornadoes. Eventually they hope to be able to use this data to identify which storms will become deadly, while accurately predicting what level of tornado they will be and the exact course that they will run. 

The weather machines will weigh up to 50Ibs and will be controlled by operators using a laptop or an ipad. Researchers expect the technology will cost around $10,000 U.S. and models with larger equipment that could drop sensors through a storm costing about $100,000 U.S. 

According to Jamey Jacob, a professor at OSU's School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering that is working on this technology, these drones are still in the preliminary design stage but they hope to start flying them in about a year. As described by Jamey, the drones work using “onboard sensors to measure important meteorological and thermodynamic parameters in a supercell that is capable of forming a tornado.”

Jamey has been working on this project for over two years and expects it will take a number of years to accomplish what he and his team have in mind. He says that it would take several years until we see this technology being used as a mainstream practice by meteorologists. 

When asked how he came up with this idea, he said that he started working on a similar project called “the tornado chaser” back in the 1980s while an undergraduate student. 

“It has been an interest of mine since and I started using the idea for course projects when I came back to Oklahoma in 2006. Dealing with tornadoes is a big part of the culture here.” 

And these unmanned aircrafts could help in many ways. Firstly, forecasters would have more insight into which severe storms will form into tornadoes. It will also help researchers better understand the climate including other severe storm phenomena such as wind, rain, hail, as well as climate modeling useful for droughts. 

The weather drones will also help those in the path of a storm by significantly cutting back the time it takes to provide people with warnings. There was a time where people would only have a moment’s notice when a tornado was heading their way. With today’s forecasting technology, the time it takes to give warning calls to the public has been reduced to approximately 13 minutes. 

And these unmanned aircrafts could help provide warnings even earlier. The information collected from them will hopefully give meteorologists a vast amount of information such that they could notify the public of a tornado hours before it happens.

Not only would this technology be useful for tracking tornadoes, but it could be used in other ways. The drones could also be used to investigate wildfire monitoring, dust agriculture crops, and even locate survivors following disasters. 

Needless to say, this technology and information would be very valuable to meteorologists and would greatly improve the accuracy of severe weather forecasting. It would also be much safer for storm chasers since they would know more information about each tornado that they are following. But there is one thing that is holding this technology back; the regulations that unmanned aircrafts have under the Federal Aviation Administration. The rules mandate how and where drones can be used in the airspace. The regulations require those operating the machine to be physically present and be able to see the aircraft at all times (only a few kilometres away). Although, developers are striving to get the same distances that the military has for their unmanned aircrafts. This would enable them to operate the drones without the need to see the aircraft. 

Could this be the future of weather forecasting? While the weather drones are still in their preliminary stage of design, people working on the project expect these drones to provide huge advances in the field of meteorology. They are also expected to keep more people safe that are in the paths of severe storms.

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