Drones may soon be able to operate on their own

The research could help predict tornado movement more accurately.

Ryan Faircloth

University of Minnesota and University of Colorado-Boulder researchers, along with scientists from three other schools, are looking for ways to improve tornado warnings using drones.
 
Though researchers at the school are years-deep in drone research, the upcoming study — slated to start in January — will shift its focus from the structure of drones to making the machines self-sufficient and using them to track various weather patterns. 
 
Eric Frew, the study’s lead researcher and a CU-Boulder aerospace engineering associate professor, started his research on weather-pattern drones in 2010 in a project called Vortex2. At that time, Frew said the researchers tested if the drone could measure weather patterns, but weren’t studying the machine’s autonomy
 
Scientists will use a drone called The Tempest, made of carbon fiber and with a wingspan of about three meters, to test if tornado weather patterns can be measured without the help of human guidance, he said.
 
“The new project will develop more of the software, the intelligence to interact with the weather data and the predictions, and the path planning and autonomy,” Frew said. 
 
University graduate students studying under Volkan Isler, a computer science associate professor and the University’s representative on the study, work on drone research projects with a similar end in sight: self-sufficient drones.
 
Though computer science students Pravakar Roy and Nikolaos Stefas don’t study weather patterns, they said they hope they’ll be able to be more hands-off with their own in-field research.
 
Drones at the University and CU-Boulder require scientists to input the drone’s destination manually, but Roy said their goal is to preprogram those destinations so the drones can fly without constant monitoring.
 
Despite researchers’ goals to remove human control from drone movement, University soil, water and climate professor Mark Seeley said people still need to be involved in 
relaying forecast data. 
 
“I think [drones] can assist in the gathering of data used to warn, but I still think a human being has to pull the trigger,” he said.
 
And while drones can yield more accurate information than current weather-tracking devices, Seeley said, he’s not sure the drones will withstand severe weather.
 
“How they’ll hold up to the elements of severe weather, even with the most advanced materials, I don’t know,” he said.
 
Frew said he expects the research to not only apply to tornadoes, but also wildfires and hurricanes.
 
“By better understanding what’s going on in these storms, we will improve the ability to do modeling, which will then improve our ability to do forecasts or warnings,” he said.