To label them as merely weather drones is almost insulting.
“The term ‘drone’ has specific connotations,” said Jamey Jacob, professor at OSU’s School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. “There is a lot of potential for developing unmanned aircraft that could have positive effects on a lot of industries.”
Still, in the wake of May’s devastating twisters, it’s notable that the unmanned aircraft potentially could help forecasters better monitor and understand tornadoes. Researchers envision the planes being able to fly into a tornado and collect data on such aspects as pressure, temperature, humidity and wind speed. Jacob said that information could increase the warning time meteorologists have before a twister strikes.
“The early warning system we currently have is radar, which only measures rotation,” he said. “That information is then given to storm chasers, and they go out to look for the tornado and report back what they see. The system doesn’t tell us anything about a tornado except that one could happen.”
Moreover, he said that unmanned aircraft could be used to help firefighters monitor wildfires and farmers keep better track of their crops. They could also provide border surveillance and assist first responders in natural disasters and other emergency situations.
“It’s like what happened with the tornado in Moore,” said Danial Cross, an OSU undergraduate student who worked on the project. “We could send a UAS to help search for survivors. It could speed rescues operations up — maybe save some lives.”
Nevertheless, such uses for unmanned aircraft remain a long way from reality. Currently, the OSU project is still in concept form. Without a prototype, researchers can’t apply for a waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly in U.S. airspace.
“We definitely want to advance the project from paper design to flight,” said Jacob. “We’re looking at about a year and a half before we have an actual prototype.”
Even if a prototype is developed and researchers receive FAA approval, the planes’ usefulness in weather forecasting remains unclear. Current federal regulations require UAS operators to physically see the aircraft at all times, which could pose problems for directing them into tornadoes and other areas.
“We have a long history of developing unmanned aircraft in our undergraduate and graduate programs,” said Jacob. “We’re through the concept and design stage. Now students are moving forward to build something tangible. We’ve still got a ways to go, but we’re getting closer.”