Tornadoes are notoriously hard to predict. Some 70% of the time, tornado warnings are false alarms, and when a storm does hit, the average warning reaches victims only 12 minutes in advance. To help increase that lead time, and to make warnings more accurate, a group of researchers now plans to start flying drones directly into the storm to collect data that humans can’t safely obtain.
“Not a lot is known about how tornadoes form–that’s the big issue,” says Warren Causey, part of the team creating the drone for the Siren Project, now crowdfunding on Kickstarter. “So we’re trying to get inside the tornado, get data back, look for patterns, and hopefully be able to unlock why some thunderstorms develop tornadoes and others don’t.”
The project started over a year ago, when Causey was in the tornado near Moore, Oklahoma–the largest tornado ever recorded. Three fellow researchers, from the Discovery Channel’s Stormchasers show, were killed while trying to place probes in the tornado to collect much-needed data.
It’s a job that’s obviously safer for a drone. “They were conducting research by placing a probe in the path of a tornado, and it’s hard to do that because you have to get close enough to ensure that the probe’s going to get hit,” says Causey. “And it rarely ever works because they’re so hard to predict. We wanted to continue what they were working on, but do it using technology that’s more readily available to us now.”
The new drones will fly at 100 mph into one corner of the tornado, and then get sucked in. “The supercell thunderstorms that produce tornadoes have a unique anatomy to them,” Causey explains. “The ‘inflow notch’ is what we’ll be tapping into, where it’s relatively calm . . . We’ll just kind of hop on that air current channel and just ride it on in.”
The drones aren’t designed to survive the storm, but a small package inside is tough enough to last through the tornado, and will collect and store data for scientists to analyze. An accelerometer will also measure force, to gather data that engineers can use to design buildings that can better withstand tornadoes.
The Kickstarter campaign will fund the final design of the drone and cover expenses as the team starts to drive around the country chasing storms. Ultimately, they see the project as a proof of concept that will lead to more researchers using UAVs–and eventually, better warnings.
If warnings are more accurate, people might be more likely to quickly take cover. “It’s kind of like crying wolf when you always hear tornado warnings,” Causey says. “But if we can get the accuracy increased, people will take them more seriously, because they know the chances are higher that a tornado will actually occur. And with longer lead times, they’ll be better able to prepare.”