Swarms of robotic weather balloons are being created by researchers at the University of California, San Diego. Packed with GPS and cellphone-grade technologies, the balloons are designed to report from inside active cyclones, where they float around, coordinate movements, and beam back data about the environmental conditions within.
The advantage of these balloons over traditional forecasting methods involves two technological advances. For one, progress in electronics manufacturing has enabled cheaper, smaller, lighter machines to be produced and deployed in large volumes. Meanwhile, algorithms are now sophisticated and robust enough to tackle the troves of data that come back from such surveys.
In a paper published in the journal Physical Review Fluids, the researchers describe a method to model predictive control through forecasting codes provided by Weather Research and Forecasting. The idea is to “go with the flow,” according to the researchers, and make small vertical adjustments. A handful of simulated models have demonstrated the success of this method.
“In short, the mathematics of control theory is essential to develop balloon coordination strategies which, leveraging current estimates of the highly stratified flow-field structure of the hurricane, move the balloons into favorable, time-evolving formations with the absolute minimum of control effort,” Thomas Bewley, a professor at the Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego and the paper’s senior author, told Digital Trends.
The balloons themselves are designed to be energy efficient and durable, allowing them to overcome the turbulent and electrically active conditions within a hurricane. In a follow-up paper to be presented at the IEEE Aerospace Conference in 2017, the researchers describe their balloons as small — about 6.5 pounds — but reliable. “[These] balloons need to operate for a week at a time on the battery charge of a few iPhones,” Bewley said, “remarkably, according to our detailed calculations, this is entirely possible, if done carefully.”