A huge tornado approaches the suburb of Moore, Oklahoma, near Oklahoma City yesterday

Storm-chasing drones to prevent tornado disasters

Engineers from Oklahoma have invented storm-penetrating drones that could prevent tragedies like yesterday’s tornado.

At least 91 people are feared killed after a two-mile wide tornado tore through the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore yesterday, forcing President Barack Obama to declare a major disaster area in Oklahoma and ordering federal aid to supplement state and local efforts.

The National Weather Service assigned the twister a preliminary ranking of EF4 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, meaning the second most powerful category of tornado with winds up to 200mph, but was only able to provide the town with a warning 16 minutes before the tornado touched down at 3:01pm (08:01pm GMT).

But students from Oklahoma State University’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering have created storm-penetrating unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that may help increase warning times by collecting better meteorological data.

“Oklahoma, along with many regions in the US, has to deal with severe weather year round but the often violent thunderstorms witnessed in the springtime are particularly worrisome,” said Jamey Jacob, an MAE professor who oversaw the project.

“Better prediction methods can save lives, but this also requires more data about how storms form.”

The vehicles are designed to penetrate thunderstorms, including the supercells that spawn tornadoes, and obtain meteorological data vital for weather forecasting.

The vehicles collect important information about weather systems that can be used for both immediate forecasts of the storm’s path and strength and for predictive models.

The data can also be used in numerical simulations to aid meteorologists in their understanding of tornado genesis.

Three teams of OSU aerospace engineering juniors participated in the project: the Barnstormers, the Flying Honey Badgers, and the Stormtroopers.

Each team designed a vehicle with corresponding on-board sensors, ground control, launch and recovery systems that could be deployed from a catapult or unimproved surface, such as a dirt road.

The aircraft, controlled by a pilot on the ground, would penetrate the storm and relay data back to the ground crew and some of the teams’ designs also included provisions to deploy meteorological sounding devices, which would provide extra data about the thermodynamic properties of the storm system.

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