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Micro storm-studying vehicles designed to hitch rides with hurricanes


June 6, 2013

One of Prof. Mohseni's "hurricane drones"

One of Prof. Mohseni's "hurricane drones"

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When we think of aircraft that study hurricanes, most of us probably either picture powerful manned airplanes that fly straight through them, or perhaps unmanned drones that fly safely over them. The University of Florida’s Prof. Kamran Mohseni has something else in mind, however. He’s developing tiny unmanned aircraft – and submarines – that will be swept up with the hurricane, gathering data on the strength and path of the storm as they go.

Currently in working prototype form, the carbon fiber-bodied planes are six inches (15 cm) long, and “about the weight of an iPod Nano.” Each aircraft currently costs about $250 to build, although that figure would decrease significantly if they were to be mass-produced. That’s an important consideration, as not all of them would make it back from a typical mission.

The idea is that tens or even hundreds of the planes or subs could be remotely launched via a laptop which was located safely far away from the hurricane. Mathematical models would be used to determine where they should head, in order to join up with the hurricane’s wind or water currents in such a way that they could be carried to a target location.

As they neared that pick-up point they would power their motors down, use onboard sensors to detect the arrival of the current they were looking for, power back up in order to merge with it, then power off again once it had taken them. This would allow them to save fuel.

As they were carried along through the hurricane, they would use multiple sensors to gather and transmit data including pressure, temperature, humidity, location and time. The planes would also be able to form a wireless data-sharing network with one another, allowing individual aircraft to change their course to better cover the storm, if needed.

... and yes, a lot of them would crash. Although Mohseni tells us that many of them could be recovered and reused, they’d still definitely be considered expendable. Financially-speaking, he says that the cost of the lost planes and subs would be more than offset by the value of the data they provided. Environmentally-speaking, it means that there would indeed be a number of little airplanes and submarines left on the ground or in the ocean. They’d certainly make interesting keepsakes for anyone who found one, if nothing else.

Mohseni hopes to be able to field test the vehicles in an actual hurricane within two to three years.

Source: University of Florida

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

$250 is very reasonable, I build wings from epp and the electrics and foam cost about $50 per copy with no sensors nor telemetry gear. And it looks like these are carbon fiber coated wings to boot.


With the miniature versions of GPS transmitters - for pet collars even! - finding downed models should not be too hard. Sounds like an 'iPhone app' should be in order for drone hunter finder rewards! I wonder though if the on-board electronics have been tested for 'hardness' with the lightning and static electricity in these storms? Stories from the manned planes that fly into these storms often note the frequency of 'strikes'.

The Skud

Sounds like a good idea to me.

I have long advocating using submarines to study hurricanes using powerful radar, balloons, and other assorted equipment to observe from inside the eye and then unlike a surface vessel when the hurricane makes landfall submerge to avoid the storm's fury as it passes away from you. However a surface vessel with ballast takes ride the storm surge inland and when they can travel no farther take on enough water to ensure that they do not move until they wish to.


When I saw "Twister" and the Bruce Campbell TV ripoff "Tornado", both with the same plot of putting a barrel full of sensor probes into the path of a tornado, I thought "Why not use a guided missile to directly deliver probes, or even calibrated pieces of aluminum foil for more precise doppler radar remote sensing of wind speeds?"

Another experiment to try would be firing explosive warheads into smaller twisters to see if they could be disrupted.

Gregg Eshelman
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