Q. How do you unlock mysteries inside storm clouds?
A. Send in the drones
Imagine it’s a warm afternoon in early May, and you are a meteorologist approaching a severe thunderstorm in southwest Oklahoma.
You’ve seen these types of storms a hundred times. Most fizzle into vapor with little explanation, but this one is different. It has the potential of growing into a monster of devastating violence. This kind of storm has seasoned springtime in Oklahoma with a unique flavor of dread.
This time you and your crew have a new tool to fight the beast. It weighs only a few pounds, is packed with sophisticated sensing and communications gear and flies with the agility of a fighter jet. Scientists call it a UAV, short for Unmanned Aerial Vehicle. Most people call it a drone.
Once launched, the drone will fly into the clouds where it will explore a vast mystery long considered the data void of severe weather. Within minutes, you will know the storm’s deepest secrets – temperature, pressure, wind speeds, humidity and other critical information that has been beyond reach until now.
Your computers will devour this new data and spit out forecasts with enough speed and accuracy to push warning times well beyond the length of a television sitcom.
The vision of launching drones to learn more about storms is not new. Researchers and engineering students from the University of Oklahoma have been exploring the possibility for nearly three decades.
OU’s Associate Vice President for Research James Grimsley remembers his undergraduate days on the Norman campus in the late 1980s, wandering down to the electrical and aerospace engineering labs to see friends working on the Tornado Chaser. The unmanned aircraft was one of the first designed to fly into storm clouds. Grimsley still has photographs of his friends preparing to launch the plane near Max Westheimer Airport.
The Chaser never accomplished its mission. The technology was not ready. Today, fueled by advances in computational capacity, artificial intelligence and remote sensing, Grimsley sees transformational change in the way we monitor and forecast the weather.
An expert in the field of weather technology, Grimsley splits his time between OU and his company, Dll LLC, which does research and development work on the small unmanned aircraft that OU’s weather researchers have embraced.
While the technology is there, obstacles still stand in the way of drones, Grimsley says. Public concerns, safety issues and regulatory hurdles must be overcome, but Grimsley sees progress.
“The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) has been responsive so far,” he says. “We have a good relationship. We have a shared vision of how we want to get there, and a lot of aviation stakeholders are having a lot of serious conversations.”
Meanwhile, OU researchers and technicians are continuing to develop the technology.
Phillip Chilson, an OU professor of meteorology, is at the forefront of that effort. He and fellow researchers from three other universities were recently awarded a $6 million National Science Foundation grant to continue developing drones to improve weather forecasting through the study of atmospheric physics.
Chilson is director of the Center for Autonomous Sensing and Sampling, and is affiliated with OU’s Advanced Radar Research Center. As a physicist, Chilson has spent his career studying the atmosphere through advanced radar technology. He sees drones as the next step in atmospheric research because they offer a relatively inexpensive way to gather data that is hard to get.
“They are good at dull, dirty and dangerous,” Chilson says.
Charging into a raging thunderstorm is at one end of the spectrum. At the other, Chilson envisions a task that would bore most people to tears. Someday in the not-too-distant future, quadcopters small enough to land on a doormat could fly repetitive missions every hour, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Working from stations across the country, the robo-copters could measure temperature, pressure, humidity, wind speed and other atmospheric vital signs from the surface up to 5,000 feet. With continuous updates and expanded data, the drones could be the most revolutionizing forecasting tool since weather balloons were put into service more than a century ago. The National Weather Service continues to launch weather balloons every 12 hours from 70 stations across the United States. Within a decade, Chilson believes researchers and meteorologists could forecast the weather with far greater acuity through drones like the ones he is developing in the Radar Innovations Laboratory on the University Research Campus.
For years, Oklahoma’s unique system of 120 Mesonet weather monitoring stations has been the envy of meteorological communities around the world. But, the Mesonet provides no information about conditions even 30 feet above the ground, Chilson says.
“We need better data from the lower atmosphere,” he says. “It’s a guessing game at what exists at less than 1,000 feet.”
Chilson acknowledges the use of drones to collect vertical data may not be glamorous, but the information they gather under cloudless skies could pay dividends as severe weather begins to develop.
“If we can get better at tracking vertical conditions, we can be far more sophisticated in our perception of high-impact weather,” he says.
Advanced radar and other technology have improved the weather service’s ability to issue tornado warnings. In the 1970s, the average warning time was about four minutes. Today, the average is 13 minutes. Government scientists are now working on computer models that could increase warning times to 40 or even 50 minutes.
Feed those models information on temperature, pressure, humidity and turbulence gathered by drones and those warnings will become even more accurate, Chilson says. But that day may still be a number of years away because the technology has advanced faster than the regulations.
“It’s like having a high-end Maserati, but the speed limit is only 55,” Chilson says.
Grimsley accepts the challenge, calling drones a new frontier in the field of aviation.
Describing these early days, Grimsley paints a familiar picture. The test flights outside of Norman resemble scenes from the Wright Brothers’ first attempts at Kitty Hawk a hundred years ago. Cars, trucks and a couple dozen people gather over an area the size of a small farm.
Licensed drone pilots, a ground crew, observers, scientists, graduate researchers and communications people are there. Many are required under FAA mandate.
Current rules limit where drones can be operated. OU researchers are not allowed to lose sight of their aircraft and they must operate in very specific areas. In one application they must confine flights to a specified 400-acre space. They also must stay below 3,000 feet.
UAVs would be inexpensive to fly if it were not for all the people required, Grimsley says. He expects the rules to ease as both sides address concerns with technological solutions that are already available.
“Right now, we’re caught in the middle. We have to save lives by predicting weather better, but we don’t want to create a new risk,” Grimsley says. “Those are the conversations we’re having with the FAA.”
Chilson shares Grimsley’s outlook.
“We can see the regulations are starting to change. At OU, we have a lot of planets aligning, and Oklahoma has a long history in aviation and a good rapport with the FAA.”
“We have a strong weather tradition, wonderful radar assets, and great collaboration across different academic disciplines,” adds Chilson. "I cannot imagine a better place for this type of activity to be accomplished."
Chip Minty is principal of Minty Communications LLC and lives in Norman.
For a related story by Chip on OU's storm chasers, click here.
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