Reality catches up with sci-fi in storm drones

Jun 02, 2013 by Justin Juozapavicius
In this April 2013 photo provided by Oklahoma State University, Team Black's airplane takes off during SpeedFest III, in Stillwater, Okla. Researchers at Oklahoma State University are designing and building sleek, Kevlar-reinforced unmanned aircraft --commonly known as drones-- to fly into the nation's worst storms and send back real-time data to first responders and forecasters about how fierce they might become. (AP Photo/ Oklahoma State University, Gary Lawson)

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 , and has emerged battered, yet standing, from seven tornadoes with winds exceeding 200 mph (320 kph)—tied with Alabama for the most EF5 storms recorded. EF5 is the most on the scale measuring tornado strength.

The May 20 tornado in Moore that killed 24 people was one of them. The federal government's National Weather Center, with its laboratories and the Storm Prediction Center, are appropriately headquartered in Norman, Oklahoma, 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 collected while traveling through the guts of a storm—critical details that could increase lead time in severe .

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.

In this April 2013 photo provided by Oklahoma State University, Team Black members from left, Amelia Wilson, Nathan Woody and Alyssa Avery prepare their aircraft for flight during SpeedFest III at Oklahoma State University, in Stillwater, Okla. Researchers at OSU are designing and building sleek, Kevlar-reinforced unmanned aircraft --commonly known as drones-- to fly into the nation's worst storms and send back real-time data to first responders and forecasters about how fierce they might become. (AP Photo/ Oklahoma State University, Gary Lawson)

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. air space. The agency's regulations also require operators of such machines to physically see the aircraft at all times, limiting the range to a mile or two (1.6 to 3.2 kilometers).

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 50 pounds (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 overseas as well as privacy issues. So, the weather researchers prefer "" 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, that it's going to be a Big Brother surveillance system and the government is actually going to worsen society rather than benefit society, 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.

Explore further: NASA's HS3 mission continues with flights over Hurricane Gonzalo

4.9 /5 (9 votes)
add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Power of US tornado dwarfs Hiroshima bomb

May 21, 2013

Wind, humidity and rainfall combined precisely to create Monday's massive killer tornado in Oklahoma. The awesome amount of energy released dwarfed the power of the atomic bomb that leveled Hiroshima.

Moore tornado a rarity, experts say

May 21, 2013

Tornados, among the most violent of atmospheric storms, rarely reach the size and brutality of the twister that swept through an Oklahoma City suburb on Monday, experts say.

Recommended for you

The ocean's living carbon pumps

1 hour ago

When we talk about global carbon fixation – "pumping" carbon out of the atmosphere and fixing it into organic molecules by photosynthesis – proper measurement is key to understanding this process. By ...

Understanding oceanic earthquake precursors

4 hours ago

Published on 14 September in Nature Geoscience, a study conducted by researchers from several institutes, including IFREMER (French Research Institute for Exploitation of the Sea), CNRS and IFSTTAR, offers the first theore ...

User comments : 11

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

rick_calandrello
1 / 5 (3) Jun 02, 2013
What about some sort of tornado busting missile shot at the top of the tornado to disrupt the circulation? we could use old missile silos in tornado country.
Requiem
1 / 5 (4) Jun 02, 2013
What about some sort of tornado busting missile shot at the top of the tornado to disrupt the circulation? we could use old missile silos in tornado country.


This was researched in the 50s and they concluded that it would take a large enough bomb that it would do more damage than the tornado.
_ilbud
not rated yet Jun 02, 2013
Maybe if they revived John Wayne or Red Adair and put him in a silvery suit with a digger with a really really long arm he could blow it out like an oil well fire.
cantdrive85
1 / 5 (17) Jun 02, 2013
What about some sort of tornado busting missile shot at the top of the tornado to disrupt the circulation? we could use old missile silos in tornado country.


Being that tornadoes are an electric discharge (most likely), using scalar weapon technology would be more prudent.
antialias_physorg
4.1 / 5 (14) Jun 02, 2013
Being that tornadoes are an electric discharge (most likely),

That's has got to be the dumbest thing I've ever heard. (And your electric universe stuff has been stretching that definition for quite a while.)

But this one takes the cake. Hats off: I didn't think you could get any more crazy.
cantdrive85
1 / 5 (16) Jun 02, 2013
You're obviously not familiar with the charge sheath vortex, which plainly explains the phenomenon in entirety. The thermodynamic theory comes up terribly short in the total energy required to conjure up such an event.

http://www.peter-...dex.html
Shootist
3.3 / 5 (12) Jun 02, 2013
What about some sort of tornado busting missile shot at the top of the tornado to disrupt the circulation? we could use old missile silos in tornado country.


Being that tornadoes are an electric discharge (most likely), using scalar weapon technology would be more prudent.


Spamming that old Space Magic, eh?
cantdrive85
1 / 5 (11) Jun 02, 2013
What about some sort of tornado busting missile shot at the top of the tornado to disrupt the circulation? we could use old missile silos in tornado country.


Being that tornadoes are an electric discharge (most likely), using scalar weapon technology would be more prudent.


Spamming that old Space Magic, eh?

Now tornadoes are magic? Particle interactions are magic? Ah yes, the wonders of the magic of EM. Rube!
aroc91
5 / 5 (7) Jun 02, 2013
The thermodynamic theory comes up terribly short in the total energy required to conjure up such an event.


[Citation Needed]
cantdrive85
1 / 5 (11) Jun 03, 2013
The thermodynamic theory comes up terribly short in the total energy required to conjure up such an event.


[Citation Needed]


From NOAA

"Tornado formation is believed to be dictated mainly by things which happen on the storm scale, in and around the mesocyclone. Recent theories and results from the VORTEX2 program suggest that once a mesocyclone is underway, tornado development is related to the temperature differences across the edge of downdraft air wrapping around the mesocyclone. Mathematical modeling studies of tornado formation also indicate that it can happen without such temperature patterns; and in fact, very little temperature variation was observed near some of the most destructive tornadoes in history on 3 May 1999. We still have lots of work to do."
http://www.nssl.n...rnadoes/

Convection? Bzzt.

What causes a mesocyclone to spin? What causes spin in nature?
The interaction of charged particles, it is so here too.
Neinsense99
2.6 / 5 (10) Jun 04, 2013
What about some sort of tornado busting missile shot at the top of the tornado to disrupt the circulation? we could use old missile silos in tornado country.


Being that tornadoes are an electric discharge (most likely), using scalar weapon technology would be more prudent.


Spamming that old Space Magic, eh?

That old space magic has him in its spell...