We Stress-Tested Drones In a High-Tech Wind Vortex

Take it to the limit.

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May 10 2016, 4:00pm

The Canadian oil town of Fort McMurray has been reduced to rubble and twisted metal after being consumed by a wildfire. With most residents miraculously safe, it's now time to think about the disaster's unsettling implications.

That climate change helped the fire spread as far and fast as it did is well-trod ground at this point. Experts agree that this is our new reality: extreme weather exacerbated by climate change, infrastructure that wasn't designed to stand up to any of it, and a high human cost. The Liberal government even recently earmarked at least $40 million to "integrate climate resilience into building design guides and codes."

It's dystopian alright, but it's not science fiction. To cope with a changing climate and the natural disasters that come with it, we'll need to design stronger buildings and smarter cities. At a state-of-the-art wind testing facility in London, Ontario—the first of its kind—researchers are conducting tests that will help us do just that.

Basically, scientists at the Western University's Wind Engineering, Energy and Environment Research Institute—or WindEEE, for short—are stress-testing future structures and vehicles so that they can stand up to the punishment doled out by extreme weather. As its name implies, the researchers at WindEEE concern themselves with the effects of strong winds in modern cities.

The testing chamber is dark, all matte black and glinting steel

"We collectively discovered in the last 20 years that downbursts and tornadoes are extremely damaging, but we had no way to simulate that," facility director Horia Hangan told Motherboard. "Cities create a very complex wind environment, so to mimic it in a physical space, you need scale."

WindEEE isn't your average wind tunnel. The testing chamber is dark, all matte black and glinting steel. More than 100 fans, all with custom enclosures roughly the size of oil drums, line every wall, and the ceiling. At the push of a button, dozens of rectangular, knee-high spires shoot up from the ground—the accompanying metallic shriek sounds like something right out of Inception—to form a generic cityscape. To get a bit more specific, topographically speaking, buildings can be cut to measure from styrofoam blocks, on a giant lathe in the basement.

With this impressive set-up, scientists at WindEEE can recreate the complex wind patterns found in modern cities.

"Buildings are designed for an extreme event that might happen once or twice in 50 or 100 years," said Hangan. "With WindEEE, we're pushing for this kind of design for types of wind that nobody was concerned about before, but produce a lot of damage."

When Motherboard visited the facility in April, the team was testing hobby drones—attaching them to a tether and putting them through their paces at high wind speeds and a smoke wand.

Right now, flying drones in some urban areas is illegal due to safety concerns, and drone meetups are rife with tales of novices losing control of their toys. As intense storms and other climate disasters increasingly become the norm, drones are going to have to be able to fly right in the most challenging of conditions.

But as Hangan impressed upon us, the work going on at WindEEE is about far more than drones—really, it's a dress rehearsal for disaster.