Tornado researchers ready to fly drones into severe storms

By  | 

SALINA, Kan. Researchers gathered in Salina on Tuesday ahead of "the most ambitious drone-based investigation of severe storms ever."

The project, called TORUS (Targeted Observation by Radars and UAS of Supercells) seeks to use drone technology to help meteorologists gain a better understanding of what triggers tornadoes and improve advanced-warning predictions to help keep people safe.

Part of the study involves flying drones straight into the supercells that form tornadoes.

The group launching the program includes participants from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and three partner institutions: Texas Tech University, the University of Colorado-Boulder and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Severe Storms Laboratory.

"Really looking forward to working on the project and driving around the Midwest over the next couple of weeks," said University of Nebraska meteorology student Daniel Popelka.

Ahead of Wednesday's launch, the research group gathered at the Salina Regional Airport to explain the project and answer questions.

"So we’re coming together, all the partners for the TORUS project just showing off our equipment and how we’re going to move forward in the field, and combined all this equipment logistically to see if we can understand storms better from the surface, from the upper atmosphere inside the supercells," says Henno Havenga a University of Colorado grad student from South Africa.

Havenga says gathering data is key to better predict storms' development and increase forecast time, giving people more time to prepare in the event of a tornado threat.

"Currently, I think we have around 15 minutes forecasting for a tornado, and if we can improve the numerical models, we maybe can improve our forecasting and maybe get a longer lead time to better understand these supercell storms and specifically tornadoes which cause extreme damage on the ground," Havenga says.

With the TORUS project, researchers' fieldwork will cover a 367,000-mile area of the Great Plains from North Dakota to Texas, Iowa to Wyoming and Colorado," the University of Nebraska says.

The fieldwork will continue until June 16.

"Hopefully it’ll just get a better idea of how (tornadoes) form because that is still one of the big unknowns in meteorology at this point, which is why forecasting tornadoes is so difficult," Popelka said. "So the aim is to be able to increase the forecasting probability and time associated with severe storms like supercells and tornadoes."