Drones are rapidly replacing older technologies. From surveying huge swathes of land to delivering cargo; UAVs continue to diversify their applications. For instance, Google Wing has been functioning in the US, the FAA has approved Amazon’s BVLOS delivery drones, and Zipline drones are parachuting medical supplies in Rwanda. Now, scientists are deploying storm drones to forecast weather and predict natural disasters.
Specialized drones that are equipped with sensors to gather weather data are being hailed as an efficient successor to the traditional weather balloons. Drones will help scientists receive real-time weather data which was not possible through traditional methods.
In the US, meteorologists issue a mere 16-minute notice before a tornado. This leaves residents with little time to take shelter. Through the use of drones, meteorologists are hoping to improve the time taken to issue a notice from 16 minutes to 1 hour. Tornadoes in particular form very quickly and require a constant flow of data relating to atmospheric pressure, humidity, and temperature to predict their formation.
How Will Storm Drones Gather Weather Data?
Storm drones aren’t a new innovation. Drones have been used in the past to gather weather data. In fact, the first weather drone was developed by NASA in 1991 called the Perseus. It was designed to fly up to an altitude of 60,000ft and collect data about ozone layer depletion and weather patterns. However, the program reached its end in 2003.
Drone technology has progressed far and wide in the past two decades. It is now possible to develop drones that cost less and are more efficient. Since 2013, meteorological researchers from Oklahoma University have been developing miniature inexpensive drones which can be used to gather and relay real-time data to scientists on the ground. Generally, industrial drones are not waterproof. Moisture, heavy winds, and precipitation can easily damage a drone. To address this issue, students have been designing and building Kevlar-reinforced drones. Kevlar’s strength was best suited to protect the storm drone against strong winds. Materials like graphene which is still under development may provide even better results in the future.
The storm drone created by the team weighs approximately 55 pounds and may cost from $10,000 to $100,000. The team has also proposed ‘dropsondes’ as another method for data collection. The drone will be equipped with several sensors. It will then fly to different altitudes and drop the sensors. The sensors will parachute to the ground collecting data of the vertical column of a storm. All this data can then be fed into deep machine learning and AI systems to create accurate models of tornadoes and make better predictions.
Storm drones have a crucial advantage of control. Unlike weather balloons, drones can be flown at low altitudes as well as higher levels. Weather balloons are difficult to control and are affected by high wind speeds which may blow the balloon away from the target area. Furthermore, a storm drone can be deployed in a violent storm at a fraction of the cost and also eliminates the need for a human pilot to sit in the drone and fly it.
With the increasing regulation and inclusion of drones into commercial applications and recently into weather forecasting, traditional forecast systems may become obsolete. The majority of the storms are generally formed in the lower levels of the atmosphere (~6,000ft) whereas weather balloons fly at 30,000ft making it infeasible for data collection. Apart from weather forecasts, storm drones would even benefit commercial drone delivery services. With better forecasts, drone delivery can be planned and executed more efficiently.