Can Drones Offer New Ways to Predict Storms, Save Lives?

Global Hawk over Tropical Storm Nadine
NASA's unmanned Global Hawk drone flew over Tropical Storm Nadine on Sept. 26, 2012. This photo was captured from the camera on the belly of the aircraft, as it passed over the northern edge of the storm. (Image credit: NASA)

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While Amazon may deliver your new book via drone, the continued study of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) could increase the amount of weather data collected to better predict storm intensities and save lives in the path of severe weather.

According to experts, warnings for violent storms such as tornadoes could increase from 20 minutes to 60 minutes, an increase that could save thousands of lives and give people more time to protect their property.

Drones have the opportunity to fill the gap between the surface and satellites, an area in which scientists can find useful information about storms and weather patterns.

Joshua Wurman, president of the Center for Severe Weather Research, sees drones as mostly a novelty, though one that can provide quality research data.

Wurman and his team are working on VORTEX2, a project dedicated to better understanding tornadoes.

"What we're trying to do is learn how the storms make tornadoes so that in the future, tornado warnings will be better informed," he said.

The team is currently using radar, mobile measurements and weather balloons to surround storms in order to collect as much data as possible. Still, there is a gap in data that drones could fill, and Wurman has pushed for increased use of drones in research missions.

A robust drone would also be safer to send into a storm rather than a vehicle or aircraft with human life inside.

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Eric Frew, director of the Research and Engineering Center for Unmanned Vehicles at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said the industry joke is that drones "do the dull, dirty and dangerous jobs."

One of those dangerous jobs is flying in the middle of a violent storm.

Frew sends drones directly into a storm to collect pressure, temperature, humidity and wind velocity measurements that radar can't provide. Those measurements are sent back to scientists and meteorologists who can better learn how storms develop.

"These are measurements and things you could not get safely any other way," Frew said.

As research develops, the use of drones as standard measurement devices could become the norm. Though the public may see the technology as new, Frew said that UAS have existed since the Wright brothers, though technology has picked up in the last 20 years.

One of the best innovations is the immediacy of the data collected according to Robbie Hood, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Unmanned Aircraft Systems Program, which uses drones to collect data and research about hurricanes and other severe weather.

"Being able to download data in real-time I think is going to be one of the bigger pros," she said. "Getting data into the hands of forecasters, the weather prediction models and also getting data into the researcher's hands generates a lot of conversation."

Moving forward, Hood sees drones as an integral part of forecasting and relaying the most accurate information to the public. While there will always be a place for manned aircraft, Hood predicts that within the next 15 years drones will be part of the normal forecasting routine.

"I'm hoping that we're going to move forward to have a better understanding of how to collect the most critical data that we need in a storm's development," she said. "It will give us better forecasts down the road. People, days in advance, will have much better understanding of what to prepare for."

There is still untapped potential for drones within the industry. Meteorologist Jesse Ferrell mentions storm damage surveys, aerial footage of flood and drought and wildfire fighting assistance as some of the potential weather-related use-cases for small consumer drones. All rights reserved. More from