Drones will gather data for tornado research project

By Patrick C. Miller | March 27, 2019

When storms ramp up in Tornado Alley this spring, drones will be among the tools researchers use to help gain a better understanding of how tornados form within supercell thunderstorms.

A $2.5 million project—primarily funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF)—will begin May 15 and cover a 367,000-square-mile area of the Great Plains from North Dakota to Texas and from Iowa to Wyoming and Colorado. Known as TORUS—Targeted Observation by Radars and UAS of Supercells— it will include four unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), enabling scientists to gather data from different parts of a storm to answer key questions.

“To understand how tornadoes are formed, we need to study their parent storms, called supercells,” said Chungu Lu, a program director in the NSF’s Division of Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences. “In TORUS, scientists will deploy a suite of radars and drones to observe these supercells. The results will increase our ability to forecast tornadoes.”

The project will be launched by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and three partner organizations—Texas Tech University, the University of Colorado-Boulder and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Severe Storms Laboratory. The fixed-wing drones used in the study will be supplied and operated by the University of Colorado and the University of Nebraska.

NOAA will provide three P-3 Orion manned aircraft for the project. Other research equipment includes eight mesonet trucks equipped with meteorological instruments, three mobile radar systems, a mobile LIDAR system and three balloon-borne sensor launchers.

“If there’s a supercell thunderstorm anywhere in the region, we hope to be there,” said Adam Houston, associate professor of atmospheric science at the University of Nebraska and lead investigator. According to Houston, TORUS will be the largest study of its kind based on the geographical area covered and the number of drones deployed.

The project’s goal is to collect data to improve the conceptual model of supercell thunderstorms. Scientists hope to learn how small-scale structures within the storm—nearly invisible to all but the most precise instruments—contribute to tornado formation. By revealing the hidden composition of severe storms and associating it to the regularly observed environment, the TORUS project could improve supercell and tornado forecasts while reducing the number of false tornado warnings.

“Every place in the United States is vulnerable to supercell thunderstorms,” Houston said. “What we learn in this laboratory called the Central Plains is applicable everywhere. Tornadoes are geographically agnostic.”