When we think of aircraft that study hurricanes, most of us probably either picture powerful manned airplanes that fly straight through them, or perhaps unmanned drones that fly safely over them. The University of Florida’s Prof. Kamran Mohseni has something else in mind, however. He’s developing tiny unmanned aircraft – and submarines – that will be swept up with the hurricane, gathering data on the strength and path of the storm as they go.

Currently in working prototype form, the carbon fiber-bodied planes are six inches (15 cm) long, and “about the weight of an iPod Nano.” Each aircraft currently costs about $250 to build, although that figure would decrease significantly if they were to be mass-produced. That’s an important consideration, as not all of them would make it back from a typical mission.

The idea is that tens or even hundreds of the planes or subs could be remotely launched via a laptop which was located safely far away from the hurricane. Mathematical models would be used to determine where they should head, in order to join up with the hurricane’s wind or water currents in such a way that they could be carried to a target location.

As they neared that pick-up point they would power their motors down, use onboard sensors to detect the arrival of the current they were looking for, power back up in order to merge with it, then power off again once it had taken them. This would allow them to save fuel.

As they were carried along through the hurricane, they would use multiple sensors to gather and transmit data including pressure, temperature, humidity, location and time. The planes would also be able to form a wireless data-sharing network with one another, allowing individual aircraft to change their course to better cover the storm, if needed.

... and yes, a lot of them would crash. Although Mohseni tells us that many of them could be recovered and reused, they’d still definitely be considered expendable. Financially-speaking, he says that the cost of the lost planes and subs would be more than offset by the value of the data they provided. Environmentally-speaking, it means that there would indeed be a number of little airplanes and submarines left on the ground or in the ocean. They’d certainly make interesting keepsakes for anyone who found one, if nothing else.

Mohseni hopes to be able to field test the vehicles in an actual hurricane within two to three years.

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