CU Boulder researchers to fly new drones into tornado-spawning storms

BOULDER COUNTY, Colo. — University of Colorado Boulder engineering students and faculty are getting ready to head into Tornado Alley with drones. The university is hoping to learn more about how twisters form to more accurately predict their paths.

On Thursday, a team tested the drones on federal land just north of Boulder. They used air-pressured launching systems to fly drones at approximately 30 mph.

The researchers are ready to head east to places like Oklahoma and Kansas. They’ll be chasing storms and deploying the drones into severe weather likely to spawn twisters.

“If you think about a supercell thunderstorm, these very dark, ugly clouds — we will be under those clouds,” said CU Boulder professor Eric Frew.

The goal is to get a better understanding of what causes tornadoes to predict forecasts that could save lives. Students and faculty in the engineering school have been doing similar work since 2010, according to Frew.

“No one is as advanced as we are in terms of going to the storm, flying these things every day for a nomadic campaign lasting weeks,” Frew said.

New sensor technology and more rugged drones enable the research team to launch drones at crucial moments. They will be measuring pressure, temperature, humidity and other weather factors.

Teams from other universities across the United States will come together to analyze collected data.

The long-term goal is to give up to an hour of lead time to people living in the path of a potential tornado. It’s a collaborative effort thanks to funding from the National Science Foundation.

The CU Boulder team will begin its trip in mid-May in Salina, Kansas and go where tornado season weather patterns take them.

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