Flying robots could help improve weather forecasting

December 12th, 2008 - 5:26 pm ICT by ANI  

Washington, Dec 12 (ANI): Researchers from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) are trying to improve weather forecasting using robotic aircraft and advanced flight plans that consider millions of variables, which would give people more time to prepare for natural calamities.

Weather affects huge sectors of our economy, such as agriculture and transportation, said Nicholas Roy, an assistant professor and one of the researchers who worked on the project.

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.

Currently, forecasts made more than 48 hours in the future arent considered highly reliable.

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 cant be processed fast enough to alter the flight plan if a storm starts brewing.

The response time is fairly slow. Todays flight path is based on yesterdays weather, How said.

Ideally, teams of unmanned aircraft 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.

Wed like to better predict the weather three to five days in advance, said Han-Lim Choi, a postdoctoral associate in Hows lab.

The key challenge of the research team 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.

Essentially, the algorithm works by determining the relative utility of taking different flight paths to gather measurements.

According to How, their system can create a new flight plan within six hours of collecting data.

How said that the results of the research could reach far beyond weather prediction. Intelligent path planning is essential for all kinds of mobile robots, be they autonomous cars or mail-carrying robots.

The research also be used, How noted, to help environmental engineers determine where best to take samples to determine the source of a contaminant. (ANI)

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