Unmanned aircraft: the future of Meteorology


Ross Janssen

When it comes to studying tornadoes, the sky is no longer the limit. Imagine the possibilities that come with flying an unmanned aircraft around a storm to study the ingredients in tornado formation.

“It’s a potential game changer for the field of meteorology,” said Philip Chilson a meteorology professor from Norman, Okla.

Until now, most weather data collected from high in the sky has been done through the use of balloons, but a fleet of four hobbyist-style remote controlled airplanes offer up so much more. The unique design and hi-tech sensors make it capable of measuring wind speed, temperatures, humidity, and pressure. The on-board computer allows it to fly pre-programmed patterns around thunderstorms.

“Typically what we do is have the aircraft follow a helical ascent and descent and the reason being it gives us a nice profile of the atmosphere,” Chilson said.

It weighs about two pounds, can fly about 200 miles per hour, and go a little higher than two miles into the sky. Successfully launching and flying the aircraft requires a crew and 72 hours of notification to the Federal Aviation Administration.

“We have a team of six people that we need in order to go out,” Chilson said. “We need four trained spotters to monitor the periphery of the airspace to make sure manned aircraft are not coming into our dominion.”

The other two members are FAA certified pilots, and as you would expect, there are a number of challenges.

“Flying at night is not currently allowed by the FAA and we have to maintain a line of sight,” Chilson said.

The hope is to someday increase the tornado forecasting accuracy, but Dr. Chilson agrees it could take a long time.

“There’s a lot to be done, technology needs to mature beyond where it is now,” Chilson said. “We are seeing the future and our grandchildren will see this as a commonplace event, but it has to start somewhere.”