For over a hundred years one of the main tools of weather forecasting and has been a weather balloon with a small instrument package attached called a radiosonde.
These are launched twice a day, around daybreak and again around sunset.
It climbs through the atmosphere and takes measurements. It works okay, but it is pretty old, and quite frankly, clunky and somewhat inefficient technology.
So, right in Texoma’s backyard, a team of scientists and engineers at the National Weather Center, in Norman, Okla., are developing better ways to measure the atmosphere, and, forecast thunderstorms.
“But the area that we really haven’t been able to make substantive advancements in has been in the lower atmosphere, the lowest mile or two,” Center for Autonomous Sensing and Sampling Director Phillip Chilson said.
The second you release a weather balloon, you lose control of it.
Dr. Phil Chilson from the Center for Autonomous Sensing and Sampling and his team are looking to change that, provide a higher resolution atmospheric sample, and, make better thunderstorm forecasts.
“Then the models could take the data in and we can narrow down the target areas much more precisely and also potential times of activity.”
To do that, they need a better tool than a balloon.
In this lab on the campus of the University of Oklahoma, a team of scientists and engineers are “building” unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs.
“We have two 3D printers that are run from print servers that are held on raspberry pies so we can have students come up with an idea and model it from anywhere in the world and send it to our printers,” CASS Staff Engineer Bill Doyle said.
They outfit their printed drone with the same sensors used with weather balloons.
“Inside this ducted fan right here there are temperature and humidity sensors inside of here,” Brian Greene, PhD Student, Meteorology. “The autopilot itself gives pressure, that’s how it figures out its altitude and then based on the tilt of the UAV it can give you the wind speed and direction. So it gives you all the normal parameters that a weather balloon would, or a tower would, in a much more mobile fashion.
You can control it unlike the balloon, and learn to fly “in” the lab
“Even for experienced pilots, we can use this to simulate certain conditions. For instance, pre-storm you’re probably gonna get windy conditions.”
Practice in the lab leads to better data in the field.
“So maybe you know it is going to be a rough day. So you want to pre-deploy some assets that have UAVs that can them sample the environment in that area in a more targeted fashion. Maybe after a thunderstorm develops there around the periphery. The radars can already see what is happening internal, and that is not a place that is most favorable for UAV operations but luckily the place where the UAVs work best is where the radars are blind.”
The UAV can provide more high resolution and “continuous” data before and during a storm which allows forecasters to “have a good sense of is this storm intensifying, weakening, is it going to do a left hook or a right hook to really allow people to make better decisions to protect themselves.”
The OU team is in the very very early stages of development. Just “beginning” to learn “how” to sample the lowest levels of the atmosphere.
“It’s very hard because since it was so undersampled we don’t even know what is possible,” Gus Azevedo, PhD Student Electrical Engineering said.
This generation of uavs leads a long term vision in mind for thunderstorm or tornado warnings.
“One of the things we’re working toward is being able to get it to where we can almost virtually tap you on the shoulder or knock on your door,” Warning Coordination Meteorologist Rick Smith said.
Now it will be many years before I am able to knock on your door, but the future is flying closer every day.