Flying robots for better weather forecasts

MIT researchers think that flying robots could be used to improve weather forecasts and to give people more time to prepare for the worst in case of an emergency. 'With more time for advanced planning, farmers could bring in their crop before a big storm hits. Airlines could adjust their flight schedules further in advance, reducing the impact on customers,' said one of the engineers. And the team leader added that improving weather forecasting could also save lives because 'people do get killed in these storms.'

MIT researchers think that flying robots could be used to improve weather forecasts and to give people more time to prepare for the worst in case of an emergency. 'With more time for advanced planning, farmers could bring in their crop before a big storm hits. Airlines could adjust their flight schedules further in advance, reducing the impact on customers,' said one of the engineers. And the team leader added that improving weather forecasting could also save lives because 'people do get killed in these storms.'

This project hasn't yet produced any prototypes, so it's hard to guess when these fleets of robots become available. This research effort is being led at MIT by Professor Jonathan How, Director of the Aerospace Controls Laboratory and in charge of the Autonomous UAV Aerobatics Project at the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. He was helped by Han-Lim Choi, a postdoctoral associate in his research group and by Nicholas Roy, an assistant professor focused on robotics.

So how these fleets of robots could give people more time to prepare for the worst? "The researchers hope to gain some lead-time by improving the way data about current weather conditions are collected. Existing forecasting systems depend on pressure, temperature, and other sensors aboard a single piloted airplane that flies scripted routes. But the data that are collected can't be processed fast enough to alter the flight plan if a storm starts brewing. 'The response time is fairly slow,' How said. 'Today's flight path is based on yesterday's weather.'"

These flying robots would be used to gather data. "Current sensor readings from one plane would be used to guide the deployment of additional planes to areas with especially interesting or changing weather. By gathering information from several key areas at the same time, the researchers believe they could offer more accurate forecasts."

Of course, this will not be an easy task to achieve, "largely because weather involves extremely complicated interactions between a lot of different factors. And while the researchers focused their work on the area over the Pacific Ocean, this was still a vast expanse to consider in terms of automated flight planning. Traditional robotic planning algorithms don't scale well to problems of that size, How explained. So the key challenge was creating an algorithm that could develop an effective flight plan quickly, based on millions of variables. After three years of research using computerized weather simulations, the team believes their algorithm can quickly and efficiently determine where aircraft should be sent to take the most important measurements.

Now, let's look at an article from Duncan Graham-Rowe in Technology Review, Robotic Weather Planes (December 16, 2008) for additional details. "Weather forecasters may not have the best reputation for accuracy, but with today's computational modeling, it's possible to make pretty reliable weather predictions up to 48 hours in advance. Researchers at MIT, however, believe that autonomous aircraft running smart storm-chasing algorithms could get that figure up to four days. Better weather forecasting could help farmers and transportation authorities with planning and even save lives by providing earlier warnings about storms and severe weather, says Jonathan How."

Here is another excerpt from this article about the -- relative lack of -- accuracy of the sensors used today either on the ground, in balloons and in satellites. "To get the most accurate readings, you really want to get your sensors into the weather itself, says How. In theory, weather balloons can do this, but only if they happen to be in the right place at the right time. So weather services currently attempt to track down weather systems using piloted planes that fly prescribed routes, taking measurements along the way. The logistics of deploying such planes is so complicated, however, that it's difficult to change their routes in response to changing weather conditions. Consequently, says How, there has been a lot of interest in using unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, instead. The idea is that there would be a constant number of UAVs in the air, continuously working together to position themselves in what would collectively be the most useful locations."

So far, these fleets of robots seem as a good idea, but we may never see them operating in the skies. Please send me a note if you have additional information.

Sources: Rachel Kremen and Elizabeth A. Thomson, MIT News Office, December 11, 2008; and various websites

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