Unmanned Plane to Chase Tornadoes
You would think that with all of the gizmos, gadgets and devices tornado chasers have at their disposal, they would know everything there is to know about tornado formation. I mean, come on. They have:
- mobile Doppler radar to derive the wind in three dimensions
- weather sensors mounted to the roof of several cars, creating a network called a mobile mesonet that measure temperature, moisture, air pressure and surface winds
- tripod-mounted sensors that capture the same data as above, only from a stationary point
- tornado probes
- balloon-borne sensors called mobile soundings that take a vertical profile of temperature, moisture, air pressure and winds
Not to mention all of the still and video cameras.
Yet, with all of this equipment, researchers who study tornadoes are still perplexed as to what ideal conditions spawn tornadoes and what combination of weather conditions and wind produce the strongest or longest-lived events.
So for the first time they're adding one more tool to the trade: an unmanned aircraft, which will directly measure temperature and moisture between 500 feet and 3,000 feet above the ground.
The aircraft and the other instruments are part of a 100-plus-researcher project called VORTEX2, which will be traveling through tornado alley from May 1 through the end of June to answer some basic questions. Namely:
- How, when and why do tornadoes form?
- Why are some violent and long lasting, while others are weak and short lived?
- What is the structure of tornadoes?
- How strong are the winds near the ground?
- How exactly do they do damage?
- How can we learn to better forecast tornadoes?
The UA, for short, has a 10-foot wing span and weighs just 20 pounds when it's completely loaded up with its sensors. It travels at about 100 mph and can stay aloft for about an hour before the charge supporting its electric engine runs low. It is controlled manually by a ground-based operator and kept on its flight path using GPS.It has meteorological sensors that will measure the temperature, winds, air pressure and moisture -- just like most of the other instruments. But because it can be flown into specific areas of the storm, scientists will be able to collect and analyze weather conditions like never before.
That information could be extremely useful for predicting tornadoes, which in 2008 alone killed 174 people, injured 1,711 and cost billions of dollars in property and crop damage, according to NOAA. Currently, tornado warnings are not very accurate, with a 70-percent false-alarm rate, and have just a 13-minute average lead time. By capturing more accurate storm data, scientists can build more accurate tornado models and ultimately produce more precise forecasts and warnings.
Photos: Tornado: NOAA; UA: VORTEX2/University of Colorado