Disposable Drones Will Collect Data by Surfing Along with Hurricanes

Hurricanes are generally things that robots, humans, and everything else try to avoid. It's hard to study something, though, if you're constantly getting out of its way. There are some aircraft that are specifically designed for hurricane study, but they're big and expensive, and since they're stuffed full of humans, they can't do anything particularly risky. Such dangerous tasks are best left to robots, like this chubby little guy from the University of Florida.

These robots, made of carbon fiber, are just six inches long and don't weigh much more than an iPod Nano. Hardware on board measures pressure, temperature, humidity, location and time, all to help predict the trajectory and intensity of hurricanes. Since just one of these robots isn't nearly enough to get a good sense of a hurricane, they're designed to be used in swarms of tens or hundreds, collecting massive amounts of data while creating their own autonomous network.

The most interesting part of this system is how the robots get around:

“Our vehicles don’t fight the hurricane; we use the hurricane to take us places,” said [Kamran] Mohseni, the W.P. Bushnell Endowed Professor in the department of mechanical and aerospace engineering and the department of electrical and computer engineering.

The aerial and underwater vehicles can be launched with commands from a laptop hundreds of miles from the eye of a hurricane. Mohseni and a team of graduate students use mathematical models to predict regions in the atmosphere and ocean that can give the vehicles a free ride toward their destination. Once in the vicinity, they can be powered off to wait for a particular current of wind or water. When they detect the current they need for navigation, they power back on, slip into the current, then power off again to conserve fuel as the current carries them to a target location. In essence, they can go for a fact-gathering ride on hurricane winds and waters.

At just $250 each (less if they're produced in bulk), the robots are inexpensive enough that you can plan to lose a few (or a whole bunch) and it just doesn't make that much of a difference, since the data they collect are (hopefully) worth far more than the cost of the robots.

Smart systems of robust and borderline disposable robots are good for a lot more than climate monitoring, too: think about how valuable such systems would be for mapping or search and rescue applications. The trick has always been finding the ideal mix of autonomy, capability, and low cost, but now that we're able to build robots that cost just a few hundred bucks, it really does make sense to start using them (and losing them) in place of manned systems.

[ UFL ]

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