Engineering students at Oklahoma State University designed drones that may someday collect new data about tornadoes, helping public safety agencies more accurately predict and plan for disaster. A giant tornado, at least one mile wide, wiped out neighborhoods as it moved through Oklahoma on Monday, May 20. While the student designs are only in the preliminary planning stage, with no firm schedule to move forward, the university’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering is negotiating with its partners to settle on a possible multi-year project that could change tornado science and ultimately save lives.

The project, whose partners include the University of Colorado at Boulder, the University of Kentucky, Virginia Tech and the University of Oklahoma, now has several active drone projects in addition to the tornado project. A lot of their drone research is funded by the Department of Defense, said Oklahoma State University Professor Jamey Jacob, but there are a lot of applications for the use of drones in civilian airspace, too.

His school hopes to collaborate with the National Weather Center at the University of Oklahoma to continue development of these types of projects.

Before the giant tornado struck, storm chasers estimated the starting location of the tornado but their estimations were off by tens of miles, Jacob said. But although their predictions were wrong, the storm chasers didn’t make a mistake. There’s just a lot of missing information when it comes to tornadoes. In fact, about 70 percent of tornado warnings are false alarms, Jacob said. While there is information available about the initial rotation of a tornado, weather modelers still need more information regarding the initial conditions that snap a tornado into forming.

Traditional methods of gathering data from tornadoes include things like the use of Doppler radar, which provides data on moisture levels and some other pieces of the equation, but other measurements, such as temperature gradients and pressure levels inside tornadoes remain unknown. Exactly why and when tornadoes form is still a big question, which is why this drone project could be useful, he said. “Whether there’s a magic key in there, in what would be present in meteorological or thermodynamic data, we don’t know yet simply because we don’t have those type of measurements,” he said.

Photo caption: This drone, named Talos, is currently being tested for search and rescue, and border patrol for the Department of Homeland Security Borders competition. The aircraft was designed and built by a team of five aerospace engineering graduate students from the Oklahoma State University Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, led by PhD candidate Thomas Hays.

The student designs were required to meet several needs that would make the designs practical for use in a storm. The drones needed the capability to take off from a typical road, fit inside a standard flat-bed trailer, lift off and fly in 22 mph winds, withstand gusts of 28 mph, fly for at least four hours at 5,000 feet without needing to refuel, and carry at least one deployable data-gathering device into a weather system. The data-gathering devices, called dropsondes, are cylinders filled with sensors, that are designed to be dropped into storms and begin collecting data. It’s that data that could fill the gaps in knowledge when it comes to tornadoes, Jacob said.

The student designs are the first step, Jacob said, and the next step would be to redesign the drone so a prototype could be manufactured. While proposals around the future of the project are still being evaluated, one possibility, Jacob said, is to retrofit an existing drone used for fire surveillance to collect storm data. A storm drone could also be equipped with other equipment, such as a thermal imaging camera, and be flown before, during and after a storm to gather data and assist with search and rescue efforts.

The cost to build a prototype storm drone is between $25,000 and $100,000, Jacob said, which is comparable to many existing drones on the market today. But cost is typically not the main concern when it comes to drones. Drone functionality and regulation are still both nascent. Drone regulation requires that a person or agency using a drone as a tool first obtain written authorization to launch their craft, a process that can be tedious and time-consuming.

Ultimately the goal behind using drones to collect data, Jacob said, is to fill gaps in meteorological knowledge that could give scientists better information about storms and allow people to prepare for disaster. It’s not guaranteed, but this technology could save lives when the next tornado hits.

“Our best-case scenario would be to put vehicles in the hands of end-users – forecasters, meteorologists, weather service, those doing research in storm systems and also first responders,” Jacob said. “It’s really important that you’re able to have something in the hands of the police and firefighters who are doing the search and rescue missions post-disaster.”

Tornado photo from Shutterstock.

*Editor's Note: Small changes made for clarity on May 22, 2013.

Colin Wood  |  Staff Writer

Colin has been writing for Government Technology since 2010. He lives in Seattle with his wife and their dog. He can be reached at cwood@govtech.com