Oct. 17 - With the anniversary of Hurricane Sandy fast approaching, scientists say they are moving closer to developing more effective early warning systems for future storms. Engineers at the University of Florida are building small autonomous vehicles that fly into and under hurricanes to provide real time data about their intensity and track. Ben Gruber reports.
Engineer Michael Kreig is braving the frigid waters of a test pool at the University of Florida. He's putting his latest mini submarine prototype through its paces. In another part of the lab his colleagues are gathering data about the aerodynamic properties of a micro-air vehicle in a wind tunnel. Both of these machines will one day work hand in hand to provide an unprecedented amount of real time data about hurricanes. According to Kamran Mohseni, the head of the lab and a professor of engineering, the intensity and trajectory of developing hurricanes are difficult to predict because satellite imagery and data from aircraft provide very limited information. (SOUNDBITE) (English) KAMRAN MOHSENI, PROFESSOR OF ENGINEERING, UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA, SAYING: "The interface between the ocean and the atmosphere is critical in fuelling the hurricane. That is the part that we are rally missing in our estimates. How do you get that boundary condition to feed to your simulator." Mohseni and his team believe the answer will be found in machines like these. Small autonomous aircraft designed to fly into the heart of growing storms and transmit real time data about atmospheric conditions. He envisions a day when when hundreds of his tiny planes will swirl around inside storm systems gathering and transmitting information, using the kinetic energy of the hurricane's winds to stay aloft. (SOUNDBITE) (English) KAMRAN MOHSENI, PROFESSOR OF ENGINEERING, UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA, SAYING: "If you use many of these little, cheap vehicles with sensing capability you can get significantly higher processing capability, communication capability, coverage, at an aggregate level." But Mohseni says aircraft can paint only half a picture. To be able to predict a hurricane's path and intensity, you have to know what going on beneath the water as well, which is where Michael Kreig's submarines come in. The vessels are tubular with a rear propeller, making ideal for travelling the long distances needed to reach a hurricane in open waters and they are also extremely manoeuvrable, thanks to internal thrusters designed to mimic squid. (SOUNDBITE) (English) MIKE KRIEG, ENGINEER, UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA, SAYING: "They suck in water through this hole and they shoot out a high momentum jet through that same hole. And it's very similar to the way a squid swims through the water. The squid sucks in water into its mantle cavity and it shoots out a high momentum jet and it gets a lot of propulsive force out of that." ..enough propulsive force to keep the tiny subs stable while tracking a hurricane underwater. Mohseni says that by combining the data provided by these small machines, weather models of the future will be significantly more accurate when predicting the track and intensity of hurricanes as well as give more accurate detail about storm surge risks. He says there is still a lot of research and development needed before his drones are ready to tackle hurricanes, but he says they will eventually help save lives.