Will tiny drones cure Floridians’ cynicism toward hurricanes?

6 Jun
Autonomous flying drones are the research of Kamran Mohseni and graduate researchers with the Institute for Networked Autonomous Systems in the department of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of Florida. (Photo by: Eric Zamora/University of Florida

Autonomous flying drones are the research of Kamran Mohseni and graduate researchers with the Institute for Networked Autonomous Systems in the department of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of Florida. (Photo by: Eric Zamora/University of Florida

Most residents of Florida–a state constantly pummeled by tropical storms and hurricanes—have become overly cynical of the often hyped-up weather news warning that the latest tropical action in the Gulf of Mexico or off the coast of the Atlantic Ocean could be deadly.

In fact, if you grew up here or anywhere along a coast where  heavy rain and wind between June and November is the norm, you probably remember getting excited for hurricanes.

No school! Hurricane party! Maybe we get to stay in a hotel out of town! Yippee!

This is because the reports are, more often than not, wrong and exaggerated. To us, a hurricane meant a couple days’ vacation, and sleeping in our bathing suits because our AC was out.

In fact, I was one of those children—until one turning point—Hurricane Ivan.

I was a freshman in high school and the weather reports ranted on about stocking up on food and water, boarding windows and evacuating if necessary. I waved goodbye to my friends when we were sent home from school.

See y’all in a couple of days!

I went home to my father, a New Orleans native who survived the terrible storms Betsy and Camille, mocking the news and calling the storm “Tropical Depression Ivan.” We did not evacuate, and I still remember that night vividly.

The first thing to fall was the living room ceiling fan. It was pitch black outside, but we could still hear it fall. The rain came pouring in as bits of the ceiling started caving in. Before long we were wading in three feet of water from room to room trying to avoid the ceiling bits. Our house was ruined. The news reports were right for once.  Two years later, the rest of my family lost their homes in Katrina.

So, should we trust the news? Why is hurricane intensity, for the most part, so inaccurate?

Autonomous flying drones are the research of Kamran Mohseni and graduate researchers with the Institute for Networked Autonomous Systems in the department of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the Univeristy of Florida. (Photo by: Eric Zamora/University of Florida)

Autonomous flying drones are the research of Kamran Mohseni and graduate researchers with the Institute for Networked Autonomous Systems in the department of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the Univeristy of Florida. (Photo by: Eric Zamora/University of Florida)

Kamran Mohseni, the W.P. Bushnell Endowed Professor in the department of mechanical and aerospace engineering and the department of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Florida, knows why the intensity is often miscalculated and believe he’s come up with a way to solve the problem.

He said the reason for the wrong predictions in intensity and trajectory is due to the inability to get measurements at the most violent area of a hurricane—the interface between the ocean and the storm. The area is too chaotic to send in a manned airplane, and sensors that are randomly dropped from aircraft above the storm may get tossed around, and therefore do not always measure what Mohseni calls “the hot spot.”

“The reason that these are not predicted very well is because they simply just guess what that boundary position is,” Mohseni said.

Of course, meteorologists use simulations, models and past storms to predict, but as the cynicism points out, are not always right.

“In Katrina, for example, the surge from the hurricane was completely off,” Mohseni said. “That was the reason why, to some extent, caught them very off guard because they missed the surge by eight or nine feet. If they knew that there was that much of an extra surge and they would’ve known that all of the levies would have been overrun by water.”

So what is Mohseni’s solution?

Tiny, autonomous, drone-like aircraft—no more than six inches long and about the weight of a couple of office pens—with cheap sensors attached to measure pressure, temperature and humidity. They don’t require a landing strip, they just crash and the resilient carbon fiber shell enables them to fly again.

Don’t let the word “drone” turn you off though, Mohseni warns, the vehicles are harmless and would not damage anything if thrown off course.

But, water readings are also critical to the accuracy of the prediction, so Mohseni and his lab team have also created submarines—about a foot in length—to dart through the water. It’s as if he’s created an unmanned military task-force for hurricane predictions.

Mohseni explained that both of the vehicles can be controlled, but were designed in a way to use the wind and the water to move. This uses less energy and brings the vehicles naturally to the hotspot, and if needed, a human can jump in—from a laptop hundreds of miles away– to guide them periodically.

Check out the video CNN did.

“Once in a while you can push yourself up and down a little bit, left and right. If you are smart enough you can actually, from the prediction of the hurricane, identify regional lobes,” Mohseni said. “Essentially if you push yourself in one of those lobes, have a very distinctive mixing property meaning that the vehicles will end up in the places that you want.”

But, the sensors are cheap?

The word “cheap” often has negative connotations of lacking quality, and Mohseni did not deny this. But, he said his decision to use inexpensive sensors that don’t have a lot of memory, represents a paradigm shift in weather prediction.

“Again, the thinking before was I have this gigantic airplane. I have all of the data processing, super accurate sensors and such, but things have shifted a bit,” Mohseni said. “ What we think is that let’s have a lot of sensors that are not very accurate, that don’t have a lot of processing capability, that don’t have a lot of power on board, that don’t have a lot of memory and things like that but you have a lot of them.  You get better accuracy resolution at an aggregate level than a concentrated one.”

All of the data recorded is sent back in real time.

To ensure all of the aircraft come together in one of the “hot spots” Mohseni created something called a cooperative control algorithm, which creates a network among the vehicles and allows them to change course and go to the right spot when needed.

The algorithm can be thought of as sort of a social network. For example say you are one of the vehicles and you just checked in at a bar on Facebook. The rest of your friends (the other vehicles) see your check in online and decide to all change their course from their dinner date to meet you at the bar. The algorithm works in that way. This way the sensors form a cluster to get a more accurate reading.

But, hurricanes are not the only situations where these tiny airplanes can be useful. Mohseni said they could also help find the source of a plume from an explosion, and other violent situations where manned vehicles would be too dangerous.

The vehicles only cost about a couple hundred bucks to make, which is another benefit of their use.

“If one of these super-duper airplanes crashes, that is national news and someone has to answer to Congress about what happened,” Mohseni said.  “But for us things are not that way. So you can afford to take risks. They do not damage anything and they go to the harsh places and measure stuff in real time. Who cares if you lose them?”

The aircraft have yet to be tested in a real hurricane, but have been successful in simulation. Mohseni said he hopes to have them in an actual storm in the next couple of years, given both adequate funding and FAA approval.

One of Mohseni's most recent submarines. (Photo courtesy of Kamran Mohseni)

One of Mohseni’s most recent submarines. (Photo courtesy of Kamran Mohseni)

Meanwhile, his team is simultaneously working to perfect submarines to aid the aircraft. They have been modifying the subs since they first came onto the drawing board in 1998. With funding from the Navy, Mohseni started studying how jellyfish and quid move to create a mechanical system that is efficient for water travel. (See my earlier post on robotic jellyfish, he said the scientists used his same data).

“We videotaped the motion of the jellyfish. We then digitalized it and created a computational fluid dynamic algorithm,” Mohseni said. “We were able to understand how they created this structure and how to optimize them.”

But, Mohseni wanted the submarines to be as smart as possible, and to be able to detect things around them and to not crash into one another. He then started studying the lateral lines of fishes—the main mechanism by how fish are able to swim in schools.  Although he is an engineer, his lab has a dissection area because biomimicry is a big component of his work.

After installing the mimicked sensory system, the submarines are able to parallel park into a dock, send data, recharge and get back to work.

“With biomimicry, learning from what nature does,” Mohseni said, “you just sort of get amazed.”

He said the merging of disciplines to acquire knowledge is what makes a successful design.

“At the end of the day, I have to say we define discipline, nature doesn’t know discipline. Nature does what it does and it is our job to sort of understand. If the idea is design then actually design things,” Mohseni , an engineer who collaborates with  biologists, said.

Hopefully, in the next few years Mohseni will be able to enlist his task force in real life and Floridians can stop being cynical about hurricane news. If a future news report predicts a category 5, maybe we will actually wait in the mile-long gas lines and head north instead of wading through water on our planned hurricane party.

 

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4 Responses to “Will tiny drones cure Floridians’ cynicism toward hurricanes?”

  1. eric m. rittenhouse June 6, 2013 at 2:59 pm #

    Very interesting. How many drones would it take? And, after being through Ivan, I doubt if you would recover that many.

    • h2obsession June 6, 2013 at 3:11 pm #

      The engineer said it depends on the size of the storm, but maybe a couple hundred. And you may not recover them, but at least you still have your data!

  2. Spencer Nellen June 6, 2013 at 3:23 pm #

    Great job Becca, I really like this story. I feel like your writing gets stronger day by day. Keep it up

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Editor’s picks for 2013 | Layman's Terms Media - December 2, 2013

    […] Will tiny drones cure Floridians’ cynicism toward hurricanes? Most residents of Florida–a state constantly pummeled by tropical storms and hurricanes—have become overly cynical of the often hyped-up weather news warning that the latest tropical action in the Gulf of Mexico or off the coast of the Atlantic Ocean could be deadly. —> Continue reading […]

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