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Tornado Drones Fly Into the Eye of the Storm

Dec 18, 2014 05:02 PM EST
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In the hopes of learning more about how tornadoes form, researchers are flying drones into the eye of the storm, collecting promising weather data that could possibly help forecasters predict the destructive path of these systems.

As part of the Unmanned Aircraft System and Severe Storms Research Group, researchers with the Universities of Colorado and Nebraska are flying instrument-laden drones into big Western and Midwestern storms. Their current clearance area covers 47,000 square miles, over parts of Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska and Wyoming, but the program's team wants to expand this area to parts of Oklahoma and Texas as well given their success so far.

Since 2009, they have flown drones into about 10 storms, including six supercell thunderstorms.

"Funding agencies didn't believe we could do it. We demonstrated that we could," Eric Frew, a member of the Severe Storms Research Group, told The Associated Press (AP).

Normally ground stations and storm-chasing vehicles are used to take measurements from inside a tornado, but these technologies are no match for these unmanned drones. So far none of the five-foot-long, 10-foot-wide drones have crashed during their storm research - though it should be noted that they don't actually fly into the storms themselves. Rather, researchers try to fly them into supercell thunderstorms, which create tornadoes.

This essentially provides a storm's "fingerprint," telling researchers where the air came from, what brought it there, and in the case that the supercell turns into a tornado, how it formed.

Including instruments, autopilot and communications gear, the drones can measure temperature, moisture and wind direction and speed. Not to mention that these aircrafts can collect data up to 2,500 feet, and specifically measure wind below 300 feet - better than any other storm chasing technology. The information is transmitted to researchers on the ground via Wi-Fi, and also stored on board, all while enduring the strong winds, downdrafts, rain and hail of a powerful storm.

They may cost $30,000 to $50,000 each - more so than any other research drones - but comparatively the cost of putting a piloted craft in the air would add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The university researchers are currently seeking authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration to expand their program.

This is not the first drone to be put to the test this week. The US Navy's new underwater drone, which looks and swims like a fish, shows promise for being a potential spy during reconnaissance missions.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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