Drones in science: Fly, and bring me data


The Tempest — wingspan 3.2 metres, cruising speed 75 knots — was designed to fly into severe storms. But during a test run in March for a new project, it is soaring through the bluest of skies. On the ground below, PhD student Maciej Stachura of the University of Colorado (UC), Boulder, is tapping on a tablet computer, transferring control to the aircraft’s own computer after a manual take-off. Systems engineer James Mack keeps his hands loose around a controller in case a problem arises, while Neeti Wagle, another PhD student, scans the skies to make sure the Tempest does not collide with anything.

The plane’s job today is to locate a beacon sending out a simulated distress signal. As it circles overhead, the Tempest’s gas-powered engine makes the distinctive lawnmower-like noise that calls to mind the informal name often given to such aircraft: drones. Unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) is more commonly used in scientific circles.

The UC Boulder team watches and listens as the 40 minutes or so of flight time tick by and the Tempest becomes a distant speck in the bright sky. Then a note of concern enters Stachura’s voice. “It is not doing a great job. It should be getting closer to us at this point,” he says. Finally, the drone turns and heads back towards the beacon. “Oh, there it goes,” says Stachura, clearly relieved.