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Engineers at UC San Diego are working to try to better forecast hurricanes by releasing swarms of sensor-laden helium balloons right into the storms.


Life imitates art

(Spoiler alert, but if you haven’t seen this movie by now then you can’t blame us.) Remember the above scene from the end of the movie Twister, when “Dorothy” finally releases her swarm of flying sensors up into the tornado?

The idea was to get the sensors right into the middle of the twisters and capture data on the behavior, strength, and path of the storms. Ultimately, this knowledge would allow for a longer and more reliable warning system for residents.

Well, this exact same idea (with a few variables) is now happening in real-life to try to better predict and forecast hurricanes.


Sensor-laden helium balloons

The researchers at the Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego are building low-cost sensors that they are affixing to helium balloons, which are released right into the hurricane.

Using control algorithms, the researchers say they can keep the balloons inside of the storm for up to a week. During that time, the sensors report back their position, the temperature, air pressure, humidity, wind velocity, and such from inside of the hurricane.

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The goal of the project

The goal of the sensor-laden helium balloons is basically the same as the goal of “Dorothy” in the film, Twister. With the data captured from the hurricanes, the researchers say forecasters will be able to track the hurricane in real-time. The information captured from the sensor-laden helium balloons could also allow forecasters to better predict the paths of future hurricanes.

You can actually watch a model of how the sensor-laden helium balloons would have traveled with Hurricane Katrina as it moved up the Gulf of Mexico. Check that short video out here.


A very special kind of helium balloon

Of course, this is the part we were most interested in, because as we know and you surely have questioned by now, a regular old party or weather helium balloon wouldn’t hold up in the middle of a hurricane.

It turns out, the team designed their own helium balloon.

The balloon resembles a large stack of tires, with a winch cable running down the center that controls the density of it, allowing it to move up or down in the hurricane as needed. It’s also said to repel ice from accumulating on the skin.

You can see a picture of these bizarre helium balloons here at New Atlas.

The balloons have not been tested yet in an actual hurricane, so that will be the next step in the process.

Who knows? In the future when another Katrina or Sandy scale hurricane threatens, these sensor-laden helium balloons could give people in the forecasted path an extra couple of days to prepare or evacuate.

It’s amazing to think that thousands of lives in the future could potentially saved thanks to a team of thinkers and some very special helium balloons!


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Sources: YouTube, UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering, New Atlas