Tornado scientists send drone fleet into violent thunderstorms


EXCERPT: Atmospheric scientists will soon get an unprecedented view of the conditions that trigger some of the United States’ most devastating tornadoes. Starting on 15 May, a fleet of up to four drones will help researchers to monitor supercell thunderstorms. These rotating storms pummel the central United States with lightning, tennis ball-sized hail and damaging winds every spring and summer, and some, but not all, develop tornadoes.

Previous projects have used single drones flying at an altitude of around 300 metres to take measurements from supercells. But the US$2.4-million project, called Targeted Observation by Radars and Unmanned aircraft systems of Supercells (TORUS), will send as many as four drones into these storms, flying up to nearly 800 metres in the air, to gather data simultaneously on the atmosphere.

This means researchers will be able to see multiple parts of the storm at the same time, says TORUS lead investigator Adam Houston, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. “We are attacking the storm from every angle to see what is going on,” adds Brian Argrow, an aerospace engineer at the University of Colorado Boulder, who leads TORUS’ drone team.

The machines will fly into regions of the storms that are too dangerous to send people into, due to strong winds. Scientists hope that the resulting information will help them to more accurately forecast which supercells will generate tornadoes ― information that could save lives. Current tornado warning systems have a high false-positive rate, says Christopher Weiss, an atmospheric scientist at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, who leads the TORUS mobile-radar team. “If you get over-warned, it’s a natural human reaction to heed those warnings less in the future.” (MORE)

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