Hand-sized devices being crafted by a University of Florida research team could one day become the future of tracking devastating storms such as the tornadoes that ripped through Oklahoma.
They also could lessen the need for so-called “storm chasers'' to put themselves in harm's way to gather information on deadly tornadoes and hurricanes. Three of those field scientists were killed in early June when a tornado made a sudden turn and crushed their tracking vehicle in Oklahoma.
Kamran Mohseni, a UF engineering professor, and his team are developing miniature airplanes and small submarines with sensors that track pressure, temperature, humidity and other measurements. Sent by the dozens into the storm, Mohseni said the many small vehicles working together can obtain accurate information from many different environmental situations.
Now others, including many in the military, favor large do-it-all devices that gather information from inside the storm, Mohseni said. While the idea sounds reminiscent of the 1996 movie “Twister,” it's more complex. In “Twister,” dozens of sensors were set in a container in front of a tornado that picked them up and tossed them around, said Matt Shields, a mechanical and aerospace engineering doctoral student.
The Mohseni group, he explained, has more control over its fleet of vehicles. Although the vehicles are not very large and do not have the same number of features as more expensive vehicles, they still can be implemented in many situations. They will mainly focus on hurricanes, Mohseni said.
Mike Krieg hands the Cephelobot, an autonomous underwater vehicle, to Zhuoyuan Song at the University of Florida. The vehicle is a prototype that will be launched into the ocean under hurricanes to record data.
The airplanes, which were first created in 2009, are about 6 inches long and weigh less than 4 ounces, Shields said. The submarines are 6 inches by 7 inches and weigh 10.5 ounces. The devices can move in very violent places that aren't normally accessible, Mohseni said. The submarines contain downloaded programs that tell them where to move. Both vehicles contain remote controls, but they are more like a last resort for the subs.
Mohseni said that his designs are inspired by nature. “Instead of fighting the hurricane, they use the hurricane to do the job for you,” he said. “The hurricane tosses them around, and we're perfectly OK with that.'' While there are other groups that create micro-air vehicles and small submarines, the Mohseni group differentiates itself with the integration of its whole research system, Shields said.
The group studies squids, jellyfish and birds to help design the vehicles to mimic those movements and cut down on energy consumption, Mohseni said. The team also uses a wind tunnel to mimic turbulent air flows that the planes will face, Shields said. The goal is to create a vehicle that can efficiently adjust itself. The group also is studying how animals function in groups, such as birds flying in a V pattern or how fish swim in schools, he said. “Besides dynamics of individual birds, we must know the dynamics of the flock,” Shields said.
The group has a big-picture plan of sending a swarm into a hurricane. Shields envisions a fleet of planes on an individual launcher. When a hurricane warning is announced, the swarm will be sent into the hurricane to collect data. “Dr. Mohseni said, ‘We're not looking to put hurricane hunters out of business,' ” said Richard O'Donnel, a mechanical and aerospace engineering doctoral student. “We're looking for a more efficient way to get data.”
Current federal rules do not allow his vehicles to track hurricane information, Mohseni explained, because autonomous vehicles can crash and damage property. Mohseni said his group's planes are so small they would cause little damage if they hit something. The group has been trying to persuade the Federal Aviation Administration to reduce restrictions.
Another advantage of the small devices, Mohseni said, is cost. The planes cost between $200 and $300, and the submarines cost between $2,000 and $3,000. The low cost of the vehicles will save researchers money, Shields said.
By contrast, the most common unmanned aircraft used for hurricane research, the Aerosonde Unpiloted Aerial Vehicle, costs between $30,000 and $100,000 per aircraft. There are also ground station and training costs involved, which can run into the tens of thousands of dollars.
Mohseni said he expects the small planes to be in regular use soon. “I feel that in two or three years, they can be implemented in hurricane situations,” he said.