Some tasks are too dangerous to have a human perform, such as flying over active military zones, spying on a target, or venturing deep below the ocean’s surface. For those such tasks, modern society has developed unmanned drones that remove humans from harm’s way. However, sometimes the drones are still too expensive to put into a certain situation where damage — or complete loss of the unit — is at a high risk. The University of Florida has developed a tiny, disposable, cheap unmanned drone that can be used in dangerous situations without fearing cost or damage.
The seemingly nameless UAVs are used to monitor hurricanes so the safety of humans and more expensive equipment doesn’t have to be risked. The little UAVs only cost around $ 250, and can get even cheaper if produced in bulk. The inner workings of the drones are encased in a very thin, but resilient carbon fiber shell. So resilient, in fact, that during testing the drones are told to crash rather than safely land, and the tester goes and collects them after. Though the UAVs are only around six inches long and weigh around an ounce, they are capable of flying through hurricane-force wind, and actually use the winds to their advantage, similar to how an airliner flies through jet streams. Of course, the purpose of the vehicles are to monitor hurricanes, so allowing the hurricane to move them around provides usable data.
The University of Florida research team, led by professor Kamran Mohseni, controls the UAVs out of harm’s way, requiring just a simple laptop. The team uses mathematical models to figure out the best place for the drones to be, then power them off. Once the weather picks up, the drones are powered on, and the monitoring begins. The drones focus on just about everything required in order to predict the strength and trajectory of a hurricane, from atmospheric pressure to temperature.
The UAVs are a far cry from current hurricane monitoring and sensing technology, as that resembles something more similar to the little balls that flew into the sky on the backs of sliced-up soda cans in the movie Twister. An aircraft built to resist hurricanes flies through the eye wall, then drops a bunch of sensors into the middle, some of which may not even gather any data. With Mohseni’s method, the drones can be controlled, and aren’t necessarily a one-and-done deal, as they can fly around and even land on water. Like those little pods from Twister, though, the UAVs would team up and fly into a storm together, and are even networked in order to better communicate and record data.
So far, the diminutive drones haven’t been tested in a real hurricane, but the team predicts they’ll be able to in a couple of years.
If you have ever experienced a hurricane, or have lived in an area that regularly gets pounded by them, learning more about their behavior is certainly an important task. If anything can eventually remove the need to either put up hurricane shutters, or pay for expensive automatic ones, the world will surely be a better place for some.
[Image credit: Eric Zamora]