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Tornado Studying Drone


Tornado Studying Drone

Scientists plan to launch unmanned aerial vehicles over the Great Plains May 1 to June 15 in hopes of getting a better idea of how tornadoes form.

The remote-controlled planes, known as UAVs, will be part of a broad tornado study — VORTEX 2 — that will start its second phase May 1, says Don Burgess, a research scientist with the University of Oklahoma.

The study will take place in parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska, South Dakota, Iowa and Missouri, says Keli Tarp, a spokeswoman with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Weather Partners in Norman, Okla.

VORTEX 2 (Verification of the Origins of Rotation in Tornadoes Experiment 2), which began last spring, is the largest-ever tornado experiment, Tarp says. The original VORTEX study in the mid-1990s helped inspire the Hollywood film Twister.

The UAVs are able to gather data high above the ground, providing a unique look at the storm, Burgess says. Researchers believe they might be on the verge of a discovery about tornado formation, says Josh Wurman, president of the Center for Severe Weather Research in Boulder, Colo.

In recent months, scientists have examined data collected about a June 5 Wyoming tornado by sophisticated radar and other equipment during the project’s first phase last spring, Wurman says. The Wyoming storm showed them a secondary gust front that formed just before it spawned a tornado, he said.

A single gust front is common in supercells — storms capable of producing a tornado. The discovery of the second gust front — and its potential role in creating a tornado — has researchers intrigued, Wurman says.

The UAVs should provide an even better look, says Adam Houston, an assistant professor of meteorology at the University of Nebraska. The Federal Aviation Administration approved the data-collecting airplanes for flights up to 1,000 feet in parts of Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska in the past year, says Brian Argrow, director of the University of Colorado’s Research and Engineering Center for Unmanned Vehicles. The UAV in this study is a lightweight propeller airplane with a 10-foot wingspan, he said.

Funding for the VORTEX 2 project is about $12 million from various sources, including the National Science Foundation, Burgess says.

This year, 76 tornadoes have been reported, 36% of the average, says Greg Forbes, of The Weather Channel. Greg Carbin of the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., says he expects more as May approaches.

Martin reports for the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, S.D. Contributing: Doyle Rice, USA TODAY

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