CU researchers return from studying tornadic thunderstorms with drones

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BOULDER, Colo. – University of Colorado engineers are back in Colorado after chasing tornado-spawning storms on America’s Great Plains. It’s been an eventful two weeks for the crews using drones to collect data.

The researchers are at the forefront of a study that could help save lives. They’re working to give meteorologists the answers they need to provide even more warning time on tornado tracks.

Data is collected by flying on the edge of supercell thunderstorms. It’s part of a mission to learn more about what causes tornadoes to form.

“There’s no question that we’ve taken new, novel data that’s never been collected before,” said CU engineering professor Eric Frew.

Frew, his colleagues and students chased storms in places like Nebraska and Oklahoma. They are in Boulder for a few days to repair drones before heading back into the field.

“Two weeks is a lot longer than we thought things would go … kind of continuously with the weather,” Frew said.

The team of 15 flew two to three drones on 12 different storms, six of which produced twisters.

“We’ve been successful every single time we’ve tried to fly on a storm,” Frew said.

On May 2, FOX31 and Channel 2 introduced viewers to the team as they performed drone practice runs in Colorado.

During those practices, CU said new sensor technology and more rugged drones are enabling students to launch aircraft at crucial moments to measure pressure, temperature and humidity.

The drones stay on the outer edges of the storms. That is the the perfect place to be to gather data on elements that feed tornadoes, according to Frew.

The CU team is also working with teams of researchers from the University of Nebraska, Texas Tech and the University of Oklahoma. The research is part of a two-year study. Results will not be known until the study is complete.

CU researchers plan to head back to the Plains next week.

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