Unmanned Aircraft Systems for Severe Storm Applications


[ 06-27-10 ]   Article on UAS involvement in VORTEX2 in the Omaha World-Herald
[ 06-10-10 ]   Intercept of Tornadic Supercell N of Limon, CO. Video available in videos section.
[ 06-09-10 ]   Supercell intercept East of Scottsbluff, NE.
[ 06-08-10 ]   First supercell intercept covered by Scientific American
[ 05-26-10 ]   Supercell intercept with onboard video.
[ 05-17-10 ]   First supercell intercept covered by Discovery News
[ 05-18-10 ]   Featured in the Brush News-Tribune
[ 05-07-10 ]   New video available on the RECUV YouTube channel.

About the Project

RECUV's involvement in both CoCoNUE and VORTEX2 is part of an effort to provide a better understanding of pre-tornadic storms with the eventual goal of producing more accurate forecasts.

According to the National Weather Service, 438 fatalities, close to 3000 injuries, and $11.2 billion in damages were incurred due to severe weather in the United States in 2003. These losses could be dramatically reduced with effective advanced prediction and warning systems. Tornadoes are especially violent members of the severe storm family and thus the study of tornado formation and evolution is a public safety necessity. There was an immediate improvement in tornado warning capabilities with the introduction of Doppler radar. However, primitive sensing methods such as human storm chasers and spotters remain the most vital part of the public safety system. The inability to determine the volumetric thermodynamic state of the atmosphere between the ground and the base of the mesocyclone remains a major barrier towards a deeper understanding of tornado genesis. The limitations of remote sensing are evident; one cannot remotely sense the thermodynamic field, these data can only be obtained with in situ sensing.

A distributed sensing system had been developed to probe an atmospheric airmass boundary with simultaneous dual-Doppler sensing and in-situ sampling using an Unmanned Vehicle System (UAS). In support of this effort, a suite of software was developed to allow for real time visualization of radar and UA information. Through this interface, controllers can effectively control a UA to an area of interest based upon meteorological information. An existing ad-hoc network was augmented to allow for the effective dissemination of telemetry, sensor data, and control throughout the multi-user network. Furthermore, a UA was developed that could carry the various sensors and conduct the required mission.

Tempest Unmanned Aircraft

Researchers (Left to Right) Maciej Stachura, Jack Elston, and Tom Aune with the Tempest Unmanned Aircraft.

The Tempest unmanned aircraft system (UAS) is designed for in-situ sensing in severe convective storms including supercell thunderstorms. The unmanned aircraft (UA) is launched under manual radio control, then is switched into a autonomous mode where it is monitored and commanded by a primary operator located at the ground control station (GCS), and by a secondary operator in the ground tracking vehicle (tracker). The combination of an autopilot and onboard computer enables the UA to maintain an orbit over the tracker as its driver maneuvers beneath the region of interest of the evolving storm cell. The secondary operator in the tracker can issue a limited set of commands to move the orbit point relative to the tracker to position the UA for best visibility for the UA observer riding in the tracker. This ensures that flight operations are conducted according to FAA's requirements to keep the aircraft within a specified distance from a ground-based observer to provide airspace deconfliction, particularly with low-flying manned aircraft.

An overview of our system's characteristics can be found on the Tempest website. To view results and videos from different flights, please view our flight testing page.

Platform Features

Wingspan3.2 m (10.5 ft)
Weight5.4 kg (12 lbs)
PropulsionElectric Motor
EnduranceApprox. 1 hour
Max Cruise35 m/s (78 mph)
AutopilotPiccolo SL
Onboard ComputerGumstix Overo running Gentoo Linux
Communications2.45 GHz and 900 MHz
SensorsMIST sonde from NCAR

Mobile Operations Van

The mobile ground station containing computers, tracking antennas, and all the tools necessary to deploy unmanned aircraft into severe storms.

The mobile operations van provides for a mobile platform from which to quickly deploy unmanned aircraft into severe storms.

Tracking Antenna

The tracking antenna from Brock Technologies allows maintaining a backup command and control link to UA at long distances.

Phased Array Antenna

The Phocus phased array from Fidelity Comtech allows for electronically steering the beam so high bandwidth 802.11 communications can be maintained with the UA at long distances.

Ground Station Computer

The ground station computer running Gentoo Linux and custom software designed at the University of Colorado allows for one operator to control and monitor every aspect of the flight. This includes tracking antennas, the vehicles, and the aircraft. Also available on the custom interface is information including Doppler radar feeds, weather warnings, satellite maps, topo maps, and aviation charts.

Ground Station Electronics

These are the brains behind the operation. The various components automatically control the tracking antennas, maintain a mobile web interface, and allow for communications to the aircraft.

Meteorology Station

The chief meteorologist has full status of the operation from his seat in the front of the van. This includes realtime weather radar and status of the sensors in the aircraft.