How Swarming Drones Can Explore a Hurricane

A University of Florida engineer is building a squadron of hand-sized drones that he says will be able to gather data as they ride on hurricane winds

Can this little thing really ride hurricane winds? Photo courtesy of the University of Florida

Andrea, the first tropical storm of hurricane season is churning up the East Coast today and while it’s not expected to do much more than deliver a heavy drenching, it has kicked off the first wave of storm tracking.

Will it hug the coast or drift inland? Will it dump and inch of rain or three? Will it provide us with our first 2013 image of a TV reporter doing unintended slapstick on a beach?

Already we’ve been told that this could be one nasty season, with a prediction from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of seven to 11 hurricanes, of which three to six could be major–that’s with winds of 111 mph or higher. And hurricane experts at Colorado State University are pretty confident–they put the likelihood at 72 percent–that at least one of those major hurricanes will make landfall somewhere along the Gulf Coast or the Eastern seaboard. Keep in mind that Sandy was not considered a major hurricane when it swept in over New Jersey last fall.

Hurricane forecasting is much more science than crapshoot these days. Computer models have become amazingly accurate, considering how many variables need to be taken into account–temperature, wind speed, humidity, barometric pressure, topography–from many different locations at different times. All told, there can be hundreds of thousands of factors that need to be weighed. And the task is complicated by the fact that we only have about 60 years of good historical data to plug into the models.

Most of the real-time data that gets fed into the computers comes from dropsonde sensors that are dropped into the storms from big, heavy “hurricane hunters,” planes that are essentially flying laboratories. These are impressive machines. They also are quite expensive. One plane costs about $22 million.

Drone on

Kamran Mohseni thinks there may be a better way to gather storm data. It’s about thinking small.

Mohseni, an engineering professor at the University of Florida, believes the next generation of hurricane hunters will be drones small enough to almost fit into the palm of your hand, but able to engage fierce hurricanes by riding the wind rather than trying to punch through it. Its weight–about as much as an iPod Nano–is an asset in his mind. “Our vehicles don’t fight the hurricane,” he says. “We use the hurricane to take us places.”

His take is that instead of relying on a few “super-duper” aircraft, why not use hundreds of little drones that through their sheer numbers, could make the data that much more accurate or, as he put it, “You get super duper on an aggregate level.”

Mohseni’s drones, with their sensors, would be launched with commands from a laptop, and then, with the help of mathematical models that predict where the best wind currents can be found, would be able to hitch a ride into the storm. Once there, the drones can be powered up or down as needed, with the goal of taking advantage of the wind’s power to explore the hurricane.

Riding the waves

But Mohseni is not just talking about flying drones. He also has developed underwater vehicles designed to mimic jellyfish as they move through the ocean. He envisions them as a tiny naval fleet working in tandem with a squadron of his flying drones, and that could allow scientists to also gather data from under the sea, which can be particularly difficult to collect.

He realizes, of course, that even though his drones–since they won’t resist the wind–aren’t likely to be blown apart, a lot of them will be lost once they take on a hurricane. But because they’re so small and light, they’re not likely to do much damage if they hit something. And he figures the data gained will be worth the expense.

Each of his drones costs about $250.

Eyes of the storm

Here are other recent developments in weather tech:

  • It’s a wind win: The Canadian firm Aeryon Labs has developed an “Unmanned Aerial Vehicle” (UAV) designed to do military reconnaissance in bad weather. It promises that its SkyRanger drone can remain stable in winds for 40 and survive gusts of 55 mph and also can function in temperatures from -22 to 122º Fahrenheit.
  • It was a dark and stormy flight: Later this summer NASA will send a pair of large unmanned aircraft loaded with instruments out over the Atlantic to study more closely how hurricanes form and build in intensity. Last fall, the agency used one of these drones, called Global Hawk, but will add another as it expands its focus to wind and rain bands inside hurricanes.
  • After all, why shouldn’t clouds be able to get that inner glow: With the goal of seeing how lasers might affect cloud formation, researchers at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany found that lasers can actually make a cirrus cloud glow. Unfortunately, lasers aren’t able to do this yet with real clouds; the scientists produced the effect on clouds created in the lab.
  • Not to mention, an awesome shield against flying beer: And now, meet the Rainshader, an umbrella that looks more like a motorcycle helmet on a stick. Designed to protect you from rain at sporting events, it promises not to blow inside out, poke people in the eye, or drip on those sitting next to you. And, best of all, because it can he held to sit low on your head, it shouldn’t block anyone else’s view.

Video bonus: Watch Kamran Mohseni’s little hurricane hunters taking flight.

Video bonus bonus: And for old time’s sake, the lighter side of big storms.

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