Making connections between weather and UAS

Tony Segalés Espinosa says his love of small-scale aircraft began as a kid, flying model aircraft with his dad. Today, that love transfers into engineering drones for severe weather research.

Segalés Espinosa combines his robotics background and his electrical engineering knowledge to build severe weather research drones or uncrewed aerial systems. These systems will be utilized in field experiments by the NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory and the University of Oklahoma. 

“I learned there was a gap between state-of-the-art drone technology and its use in weather research,” said Segalés Espinosa, a scientist with the Cooperative Institute for Severe and High-Impact Weather Research and Operations (CIWRO) and the Advanced Radar Research Center (ARRC). Segalés Espinosa is also pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Oklahoma in electrical and computer engineering.

A person holding a UAS.
Tony Segalés Espinosa with a Coptersonde UAS he designed. Segalés Espinosa developed systems for the Coptersonde to improve weather sampling. He also developed the outer shell for the UAS. (Photo provided.)


Some of the problems Segalés Espinosa works to solve include making a sensor system compact, and reliable, for a drone. Drones also need to withstand extreme weather conditions, like changes in temperature. Segalés Espinosa integrated temperature and humidity sensors, while developing new hardware specifically created for sampling the atmosphere.

“You have to connect the dots and find other ways to sample the atmosphere, and drones help us do that,” he said. “That is what motivated me. I am excited to use my knowledge to help people improve their work and research as we capture more data about the atmosphere.”

Making connections

A native of Paraguay, Segalés Espinosa is building more than drones. He’s building connections.

“My parents told me what I’m doing here is a big collaboration for the world. This research is impacting everyone,” he said. “Myself and others are collaborating with people with different cultural backgrounds while having the same main goal — making the world a better place.”

He said making the world better continues to inspire him to reach his goals within the weather and engineering communities.

Segalés Espinosa admits coming to the United States for his masters, and now Ph.D., was difficult. Now he is developing cutting-edge technology, and that drives him every day.

Two men standing in front of a small model plane aircraft
Tony Segalés Espinosa and his dad with a small-scale aircraft. Segalés Espinosa’s love of aircraft transfers into engineering drones for severe weather research. (Photo provided.)

“I can share my stories and inspire other people, particularly Hispanic people and those from other cultures to do the same thing,” he said. “We should join other communities to make the world a better place and inspire others.”

Segalés Espinosa wants to build more collaborations between his organizations in the U.S. and those in Paraguay.

“Collaborations are what is pushing me forward, creating these bonds between people and nations, and being more inclusive of people and cultures to impact science but also the world,” said Segalés Espinosa.

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Researchers study costliest severe thunderstorm event

One year ago, a severe thunderstorm with extreme winds — called a derecho — tore through the Midwest United States. The event brought extensive damage — snapping power poles and damaging an estimated 37.7 million acres of farmland. NOAA estimates indicate this is the costliest thunderstorm event in recorded history for the United States, causing more than $11 billion in damage.

Researchers at the NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory are studying one of the biggest weather stories of 2020, which occurred at the height of crop growing season. The “Iowa Derecho” had a swath of destructive winds and was not only life-threatening but also obliterated crops in its path.

Predictability varies for thunderstorm events, and many numerical models did not do a particularly good job of helping forecasters anticipate the devastating Iowa event, even the day of the storm. Researchers tested whether the experimental Warn-on-Forecast System (WoFS) could have contributed to an improved forecast of the event.

Researchers expanded the model domain to capture the evolution of the fast-moving and long-lived storm and the results of the forecast runs proved very promising. A forecast based on data that was available 12 hours before the derecho developed correctly predicted a fast-moving, bowing thunderstorm system with significant severe winds (> 75 mph) near the ground. In the future, when a fully developed WoFS becomes available for events such as these, this could lead to earlier anticipation of a high-end event.

Some scientists, like Melissa Wagner, are working in the field to better understand derechos in hopes of providing more accurate warnings in the future. Wagner, a Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies (CIMMS) scientist supporting the NSSL, is leading a research effort that’s using drones to gather data on the aftermath of the 2020 derecho.

Wagner’s team used a drone to collect imagery of rural parts of central Iowa hit hard by the derecho in late August and early September. Drones are particularly useful in gathering data on storm damage in rural areas, Wagner said.

Understanding and documenting wind damage helps scientists like Wagner better understand what these storms are capable of and better communicate their risk in the future. It also helps scientists develop more damage indicators for vegetation that are better reflective of storm intensity in rural areas. Wagner’s study is ongoing, and she plans to use UAS to gather this type of data on future derechos and other high-wind events.

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New Release: Pod-Sized Science Podcast

The NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory is excited to share with you its first podcast!

Researchers at the NSSL are using Uncrewed Aircraft Systems (UAS) to study storm damage in rural areas. In March, researchers captured aerial photos and video of storm damage from hard-to-reach locations using UAS, or drones. Learn about the multispectral camera on the UAS, and how the camera provides imagery showing high-resolution damage to vegetation.



EMILY: Hi everybody and welcome to Pod-Sized Science, the podcast about research at the NOAA National Severe Storms Lab. I’m your host Emily Jeffries.

This is our first podcast so we’re excited to share it with you. We have a lot of great interviews at the lab as a result of our video series — Bite-Sized Science. Because of its short format, some interview content gets left on the cutting room floor. So, we thought, hey let’s create a supplemental podcast that allows us to take a deeper dive into these topics — and hear more from the scientists.

If you haven’t checked out the Bite-Sized Science video yet, pause this and check that out first.

Now, without further ado, let’s jump into our first episode.

Researchers are studying tornado damage with Uncrewed Aerial Systems, or UAS for short. We interviewed the project’s principal investigator, Mike Coniglio, and co-investigator, Melissa Wagner.

Before we discuss this current research, let’s hear a little bit about how they both got involved in working with UAS. Here’s Mike, a Research Meteorologist with the NOAA National Severe Storms Lab. He’s been working at the Lab since 1998, when he started as a student employee.

MIKE: So I’ve studied severe weather for a long time here at NOAA NSSL, but it’s mostly been with the atmospheric properties of storms. And I really haven’t focused much on the aftermath of the storms and in the two decades that I’ve been doing this research, one of the Areas that I’ve seen that we lack some knowledge and is understanding how strong storms really are and what exactly happened when a tornado or a high wind event impacts a rural area… So I hope to be able to develop a better database for tornadoes that we can then go back and understand the dynamics of storms better based on better estimates of what actually happened with events over rural areas.

EMILY: And here’s Melissa, she began working as a Postdoctoral Research Associate for the University of Oklahoma’s Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies with NOAA NSSL in 2020. Prior to Norman, she was a grad student in Geography at Arizona State University.

MELISSA: So I got involved with UAS Systems particularly when I was working on my Masters thesis. I was doing satellite based damage assessments and I had noticed that there were some limitations and be able to detect the damage and I felt that using UAS would be a great and innovative way to be able to address some of those limitations.

EMILY: So how does UAS fit in with other tools like radar and satellite for observing tornado damage? Mike provides more insight.

MIKE: Newer radar technology is very good at detecting debris that tornadoes loft into the air But we can’t tell exactly where that tornado occurs or how strong it was from that information and also the radar might not be able to see it if the tornado occurs far from the radar. And satellites also collect imagery of damage, but the images are far coarser than what we can obtain from cameras on our UAS and also we have issues with obtaining the imagery in a timely manner because of clouds and Flexibility issues with the satellites. So UASs give us a very flexible option to get out and obtain imagery in a timely manner and obtain very high resolution imagery of the damage that tornadoes produce.

EMILY: The scientists talk a lot about storm intensity and the importance of assigning accurate ratings.

MIKE: We want to use UAS’s to study storm intensity because it’s very difficult for the Weather Service to assign intensities to tornadoes in rural areas where there may be very few structures that were hit or very few damage indicators to go by with our current rating techniques. So we want to be able to provide some research that can help provide guidance to them to understand how to rate tornadoes in these rural areas where maybe only vegetation was impacted.

EMILY: A key tool is the multispectral camera on the fixed-wing aircraft. Melissa explains why this camera is so important for studying damage to vegetation.

MELISSA: So the multi spectral camera that we use on the UAS provides us very high resolution imagery, so we’re talking about something that’s about 8 centimeters scale. If you’re flying up 400 feet. This camera also has multiple bands, so it collects visible imagery is what we see as a true color, but then it also collects near infrared information and as well as red edge information, so near infrared and red edge are really important because they help us to assess vegetation health. So by looking at the response of vegetation in those two bands we’re able to determine what has been damaged. And what has not been damaged? So that really provides very high detailed information to help us really be able to better understand damage to vegetation.

EMILY: This research is being done in the southeastern United States. The team has traveled to states like Alabama and Louisiana. So why that region?

MELISSA: It’s really important to focus our research in the Southeast US because they tend to have a lot of nocturnal tornadoes, so tornadoes that happen at night. And because because these tornadoes happen while people are sleeping, they can be more deadly, so there’s a greater loss of life with these events as well, as there’s also a more vulnerable housing stock affecting fatalities in this area, so it’s really important that we focus on a better understanding of tornadoes in this area.

EMILY: The researchers plan to study more storm events in the future with UAS’s. They describe the scope of this project and what they’ve learned so far.

MELISSA: So this project is a two year project and what we hope to accomplish is to be able to better characterize damage to vegetation. So have a better understanding of the potential of storm intensity. And really by using additional datasets such as radar or other observational datasets we would like to get a better understanding of what’s going on in terms of storm dynamics, ’cause there’s still a lot of discoveries that are yet to be made in terms of understanding damage, an understanding how landcover can influence damage patterns.

MIKE: We have learned that using a fixed wing UAS is essential for being able to cover a lot of ground very quickly in a timely manner after an event occurs compared to a standard quadcopter, UAS technology because we can get a lot more battery time. A lot more flight time out of it, and which is important because people tend to go out and clean up quickly after an event. So we want to be able to cover as much area as we can for our research.

EMILY: Thank you for tuning into Pod-Sized Science and thank you Melissa and Mike! To learn more about this project and other research at the lab, stop by and follow us on social media.


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New video: Studying tornado damage with Uncrewed Aircraft Systems

Researchers at the NOAA National Severe Storms Lab are using Uncrewed Aircraft Systems (UAS) to study storm damage in rural areas. In March, researchers captured aerial photos and video of storm damage from hard-to-reach locations using UAS, or drones. Learn about the multispectral camera on the UAS, and how the camera provides imagery showing high-resolution damage to vegetation.

Scientists hope images from the research drones will further improve our understanding of tornadoes, provide more information to NOAA National Weather Service forecasters for storm event ratings, and help improve the accuracy of the NOAA Storm Events Database. NWS forecasters reference the database to help predict future outbreaks; researchers use the database to help create new NWS forecast tools.

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Scientists gather to talk about using Unmanned Aerial Systems for weather research

UAS Scottsbluff, NE
University of Colorado’s Brian Argrow (with back to the camera) and graduate assistant Jason Roadman assemble the Tempest UAS prior to launch into a supercell near Scottsbluff, NE, June 2010.

Unmanned Aerial Systems (UASs) are becoming increasingly important as instrument platforms for remote and in-situ observations of the atmosphere just above the ground. Their adaptability, potential ease of deployment, and low cost make them an attractive research option. NSSL scientists will participate in the annual meeting of the International Society on Atmospheric Research using Remotely-piloted Aircraft (ISARRA) in Norman, Oklahoma, May 20 to 22 to share knowledge about using these aircraft systems to observe and monitor the atmosphere.

Topics presented by NSSL include using UASs as part of a composite observing system for predicting the formation and evolution of severe convective storms, roles for UAS in the 2016 VORTEX-Southeast project, and ground radar support of UAS operations with Multi-function Phased Array Radar (MPAR).

Using UASs for research is a developing endeavor. A University of Colorado (CU) UAS team successfully probed the rear-flank downdraft of a tornadic supercell in northeast Colorado during the second Verification of the Origins of Rotation in Tornadoes Experiment in 2009. With NSSL support, in June 2013, a CU, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and NSSL team flew a UAS in coordination with an NSSL mobile mesonet (vehicle with atmospheric instruments) to sample outflows from several supercells in northeast Colorado.
These interactions support the NOAA goal of investing in observational infrastructure, and NOAA’s science mission to understand and predict changes in climate, weather, oceans and coasts.

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