Still the scientists, like spiders waiting for insects to fly into their web, have had to wait for storms to form within the FAA-cleared zones and hope that a storm remained within those blocks. If storms keep skirting the allowed sectors, the scientists may become increasingly frustrated with their progress this season, Argrow says. If the Tempest were free to coverthe entire VORTEX 2 domain covering more than 10 states, they would be able to intercept all the storms other the teams have targeted, which could have potentially jumped their intercept frequency from two storms in one month to maybe two in one day.
Uncertain future for UAV-collected data
Researchers within the VORTEX 2 team say they have hope for UAVs but wonder if they will ever get past FAA regulations so that they can roam freely through the Great Plains.
"It's understandable that some are skeptical. We've been struggling since 1996 to get a UAV into a storm," Rasmussen says.
Frustration increased last summer when a group connected to Discovery Channel’s Storm Chasers flew an unmanned plane straight into a forming tornado. When the scientists learned this, they were despondent. "We've been following the rules, and here's someone breaking the rules and could potentially ruin it for us," Rasmussen says. If something had gone wrong with that plane, it's certain the FAA would have further delayed anyone flying anything into a storm, he said.
Meanwhile, back in April 2009, the FAA set up a committee to develop formal recommendations specific to unmanned small aircraft. This would relieve the burden of submitting countless applications to fly. But, at best, the FAA does not expect to have the new regulations confirmed until 2012, Dorr says. Regardless, Argrow says the new UAV-specific guidelines will have little to no impact on his team's research. There is a chance the guidelines may only apply to flight tests at heights below 1,000 feet, not the sort of free rangeArgrow and his team need in order to study twisters. For storm-chasing scientists expanded regulations that permit clearance to fly UAVs can't come fast enough. Although ground-based mobile radar can measure wind speed and direction, it cannot measure thermodynamic variables such as temperature, pressure and humidity. Such variables can only be measured by placing the instrument in the locus where the measurement needs to be taken, 300 meters up. The Tempest may be the only chance of measuring these variables in a developing storm.
"These [UAV] planes will be incredibly valuable. For every 10 million observations of winds, we have only one for temperature, pressure and humidity," Rasmussen says. Not only will they sample air that cannot be studied today, but the UAVs are the one chance we have of balancing out the data, he adds.
For now the Tempest is on call for the next supercell to wind its way into a section of the 58 FAA-cleared grids. Luckily, the forecast is calling for storms to migrate into this domain and the Tempest is ready to meet up once again with the VORTEX 2 armada. "It's looking good. We should be very active for the next week and through to the June 15 end date of the project," Argrow says.
*Correction (6/9/10): This sentence was edited after publication to correct the wingspan length .