Fourteen minutes is how much time a city or town has between a tornado warning and when a twister touches ground, according to the national average from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
But that warning time could increase to an hour with the help of data from unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly called drones, according to Jamey Jacob, an aerospace and engineering professor at Oklahoma State University.
Two days of violent weather have killed at least 30 people in Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee and the storms are forecast to continue.
In the future, the information collected by drones could help meteorologists make better tornado forecasts, Jacob said.
Jacob is leading a team of students in designing and developing drones to fly into storms and collect a storm’s pressure, temperature, humidity and wind speeds.
“Right now, we don’t have a really good way in determining which thunderstorms will develop into tornadoes,” Jacob told USA TODAY Network. He added, “We’re looking for the fingerprint of the tornado.”
Oklahoma is in the middle of Tornado Alley. The state had 63 tornadoes last May alone, according to NOAA.
As tornado season gears up again, the OSU team is building drones, which will weigh 35 pounds each and be able to fly up to 12 hours, Jacob said.
The goal is to build several drones that will fly into storms with wing sensors to collect data, as well as with targets that drop into the storm from the aircraft, Jacob said.
Diagram showing Oklahoma State University’s drone flight path during a storm.
Jacob said he expects to begin flight-testing by the fall.
The Oklahoma team isn’t the first to use unmanned devices to collect tornado data. In 2010, Brian Argrow and colleagues at the University of Colorado-Boulder flew two drones as part of a massive data collection effort called Vortex2 to study tornadoes.
“Now that we have a proven instrument, we want to do this again to get more information,” said Argrow, an aerospace engineering professor at the university and the founder of the school’s Research and Engineering Center for Unmanned Vehicles.
The university collaborates with NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory on data-collection flights, Argrow said.
In 2010, Argrow and his team were able to secure certification from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly over parts of Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska and Wyoming. The Oklahoma team is in the process of securing FAA approval to fly in parts of Oklahoma, Jacob said.
Any aircraft, whether manned or unmanned, must receive FAA approval. The agency is developing rules for safely operating drones, with a deadline from Congress to have these regulations in place by September 2015.
The lack of data about temperature and moisture in the air above the surface has been “a gaping hole” in understanding tornadoes, said Adam Houston, associate professor atmospheric sciences at the University of Nebraska, who worked with Argrow on the 2010 research.
“Using manned aircraft is far too dangerous,” Houston said. “Using unmanned aircraft is really the panacea.”
USA Today: http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2014/04/29/tornado-drone-oklahoma-noaa/8462481/