The December 2022 issue of IEEE Spectrum is here!

Close bar

Disposable Drones Will Collect Data by Surfing Along with Hurricanes

Swarms of cheap, tiny drones will surf the wind and waves to study hurricanes

2 min read
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 ]

The Conversation (0)

The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

Keep Reading ↓Show less