The end goal is to improve forecasts that can help save lives. “You can’t forecast a phenomenon you don’t understand,” Adam Houston, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Nebraska who helped put together the research team, told Earther. “The aim of this project is to improve the understanding of supercells so forecasters will have more knowledge.
Just don’t call them storm chasers. “We usually say we’re severe storm researchers,” Eric Frew, an aerospace engineer at the University of Colorado who has spent 15 years refining the drones used as part of Project TORUS, told Earther.
Armed with a suite of high tech radars, car rooftop-launched fixed wing drones, laser, and even an aerial assist from Hurricane Hunter aircraft, these researchers spent weeks on the road chasing down storms all with the goal of figuring out why some storms spawn tornadoes and others don’t.
But that network is fixed in place and while tornadoes and supercells do occasionally buzz by or even plow over all those weather surveillance systems, it’s a rare occurrence and doesn’t provide nearly enough data for forecasters to work with.
An ancillary goal of the project is also serving as proof of concept of what a future weather monitoring system for the U. S. could look like. “The technology we’re using for this project’s unmanned aircraft part could be used in theory in a next generation meteorological surveillance network,” Houston said.
The measurements in the vicinity, though, can provide vital clues about supercells and the conditions when tornadoes do (or don’t) form. “We usually say we’re severe storm researchers.
Gathering data on how it actually works to create tornadoes is crucial, so the team devised a new drone-launching system that would streamline the process and set out this spring with three separate drones.
But the thing is, not all supercells spit out tornadoes, and scientists aren’t exactly sure why that is. “You can’t forecast a phenomenon you don’t understand. The U. S. is home to three-quarters of all the tornadoes that form around the world in any given year.
After five weeks of traveling down interstates, dirt roads, and every other drivable surface in between, the band of researchers went back to their respective institutions in Colorado, Texas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma to begin to look at reams of data they’ve collected.
It will also be compared against data collected at fixed weather stations to see if there are any correlations forecasters can use to improve warning times for tornadoes.
That’s why Houston helped put together Project TORUS, basically a roving pack of weather monitors strapped to trucks and SUVs that allowed researchers to get up close and personal with nature’s most violent weather.
So Project TORUS’ panoply of high tech weather monitors also includes fix-wing autonomous drones that can be sent into the storm while driving using a pneumatic launcher.
The group got within two miles of a tornado on one pass, but tried to keep their distance from the heart of areas where tornadoes were likely to form to avoid recreating “Twister’s” final scene and getting caught right under a tornado.
This merry band of weather monitoring equipment spent five weeks this spring prowling Tornado Alley in search of storms.