India to use Unmanned Aerial Vehicles to study cyclones

Eyes in the sky


 Perhaps for the first time, the UAVs may be pressed into action for a different reason: to monitor cyclones that kill hundreds of people and damage large areas of crops and properties.

According to Ajit Tyagi, director general of the Indian Meteorological Department, the government has given in-principle approval to buy the first meteorological UAVs. “We are seeking information from the manufacturers,” Tyagi told Deccan Herald.

If plans were to go-ahead, the first UAV may fly through a raging cyclone in Bay of Bengal in a year from now to relay through crucial data that may help the authorities take precautionary action and save lives. In terms of their payloads, Meteorological UAVs are miles apart from those used for military purposes. Typically, the UAV used in the Indian military carries high-sensitive cameras to monitor movements of the enemies, but its meteorological version will have instruments to check temperature, pressure and wind speeds at real-time.

Availability of advanced equipments would help weathermen predict the impact of large and devastating cyclones like Sidr, Nargis and Aila.

Since India has no prior experience of handling meteorological UAVs, the IMD would collaborate with the National Centre for Atmospheric Research at Boulder, Colorado under the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The UAV project is part of an ambitious plan to send an aircraft packed with equipment into the eye of the storm to study it for better prediction and understanding. Currently, IMD’s warnings give general direction and movement of a cyclone. However, with the UAV, will narrow the impact zone to a 30-50 km area.

“Now our forecasts consider a possible area of 150 km as point of impact. Since cyclones can change course at the last minute, there is very little time for the administration to respond to the emergency situation,” Tyagi said.

Though India planned to do the plane experiment in 2010, it may be slightly delayed depending on the availability of NOAA’s C-130J Hercules planes, Tyagi said.
Once inside the storm, the plane will release an NCAR weather reconnaissance device called dropsonde, which contains GPS receiver and pressure, temperature, and humidity (PTH) sensors.

The instrument would capture atmospheric profiles and relay the data to an on-board computer through radio link. The device’s descent is usually slowed by a parachute, allowing for more readings to be taken before it reaches the water beneath. Since the physics of cyclone is poorly understood, dropsonde data provide valuable information about the storm’s internal structure. The experiments will not only advance the regional scale cyclone forecasting system but will also make cyclone guidance in the Bay of Bengal better.

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