Virginia Tech's Gobble Hawk high-endurance UAV

Hurricane tracking drones designed by students

Nasa has announced the winners of a competition to design a new UAV for tracking and collecting data on hurricanes.

This year’s University Aeronautics Engineering Design Challenge called on university students to design a new UAV that can exceed the flight limitations of the systems currently used to gather storm data throughout the Atlantic Ocean hurricane season, which runs June 1 to November 30.

Accurate predictions of storm formation and growth require several days of uninterrupted observations and measurements, but current systems, similar to the Global Hawk UAV, have a limited flight endurance of 24 hours per take-off.

Virginia Tech’s team of nine university seniors won first place in the competition with its Gobble Hawk, an aerial system consisting of two aircraft, each with a flight endurance of 7.8 days and using liquid hydrogen as a fuel source. The team estimated the total cost of the system would be $199.5m for production plus 10 years of operation and maintenance.

“The data gathered by UAS’s (unmanned aerial systems) is crucial to refining computer models so we can better predict not just the path of these storms, but also the process of hurricane formation and growth,” said Craig Nickol, a Nasa aerospace engineer and technical lead for the contest at the agency's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. “This is where current systems fall short.”

Purdue University came second with the OQ451-5 Trident, a hydrogen-powered UAV capable of seven days of uninterrupted flight, which would have cost roughly $310m for design, $78 for production and operating costs of about $17,000 per flight hour.

The University of Virginia took third place with The Big WAHOO – a tip of the hat to the school’s unofficial nickname and also an acronym for Worldwide Autonomous Hurricane and Oceanic Observer – which has a flight endurance of 7.5 days, an operational lifetime of 15 years and a total lifecycle cost of about $493.7m.

Papers submitted for the challenge had to successfully demonstrate how the team’s system design would provide persistent five-month aerial coverage over an area of the Atlantic Ocean off the west coast of Africa where tropical depressions can form into hurricanes, with systems capable of flying non-stop a minimum of seven days.

"The decision process and supporting detail, including cost optimisation, were strengths of the top papers," said aerospace engineer Jason Welstead, a contest reviewer for Nasa’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate in Washington.

The three winning teams, who beat of competition from another five universities, will receive a cash award through an education grant and cooperative agreement with Christopher Newport University.

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