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In Tornado Alley, using drones to pinpoint severe weather

February 21, 2016 at 11:42 AM EDT
More than 100 tornadoes touched down in Oklahoma last year, and a new multi-million-dollar grant to four universities in the heart of Tornado Alley may lead to better information about where and when severe weather may strike. NewsHour's Stephen Fee reports from Oklahoma.

STEPHEN FEE: They may look like toys, but these small planes flying high above Oklahoma State University in Stillwater may one day help weather forecasters predict storms and save lives.

Oklahoma State, along with three other universities, won a $6 million National Science Foundation grant to develop small weather-sensing drones. Professor James Jacob is the project’s principal investigator.

JAMEY JACOB: “The goal of the project is to be able to put in the hands of end users in four years meteorologists and atmospherics physicists the technology that will allow them to perform routine day to day measurements of the atmosphere, you know it’s really there to help us improve both our understanding of the atmosphere as well as improve our forecasting of severe weather events.”

STEPHEN FEE: Twenty-four-year-old Alyssa Avery is one of Jacob’s graduate students. Over the past two years, she’s been building her own aircraft, named Maria.

ALYSSA AVERY: “The project is basically designing an aircraft, a small one remotely piloted, that can fly around severe storms and collect as much data as we can so we can lengthen that warning time and make it more safe for everyone living in tornado areas.”

STEPHEN FEE: As an engineer, her job is to build a plane strong enough to fly close to developing supercells, the mega storms that often lead to tornadoes in Oklahoma.

Avery’s aircraft is designed to deploy sensors that monitor temperature, windspeed and atmospheric pressure.

STEPHEN FEE: “We can’t measure this stuff from the ground? It’s better to do it in the air?

ALYSSA AVERY: “Yeah so right now we have radar, which obviously everyone knows about, so it surveys at a higher altitude. It did improve weather models a lot but when it comes to that really precise, like, how close is it going to be, where is it going to be, what’s actually going to turn into a tornado versus just circulation which is much less dangerous, they don’t have that — it’s called in situ, which is right there thermodynamic data.”

STEPHEN FEE: In other words, forecasters need to get closer to the action, scanning parts of the atmosphere that traditional radar, weather balloons and sophisticated weather towers can’t reach.

That sweet spot is called the lower atmospheric boundary layer, a zone roughly 1,000 feet off the ground.

Phillip Chilson is a professor of meteorology at the University of Oklahoma and is also involved in the project.

PHILLIP CHILSON: “There has been a need for high quality measurements of the lower atmosphere that’s been known by the meteorological community for decades. The lowest level of the atmosphere is so dynamic spatially and temporally, that it’s very under-sampled at present.”

STEPHEN FEE: So to get more information about that part of the atmosphere, students at Oklahoma State aren’t just building the planes, they’re designing the sensors and writing the software that processes the data gathered in the skies.

Twenty-one-year-old Nicholas Foster is designing a small pod that aircraft-like Maria may one day carry into a storm.

NICHOLAS FOSTER: “Essentially it’s just a packet of sensors. So what I’m doing is these will go go inside of Maria, and these will be the things that fall out and parachute down and take the data on the way down.”

STEPHEN FEE: The Oklahoma State researchers hope this technology can be used at home and around the world to give forecasters earlier warnings of severe weather.

JAMEY JACOB: “Getting this data will allow them to take our forecasts which now for severe storms and tornadoes at the ten to fifteen mark, maybe up to the hour mark where we can actually warn on forecast and say, hey you know you’re going to have severe weather in your area that you’re going to see something like a tornado. And you know that’s really going to save lives in the end.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: A previous version of this piece stated that Oklahoma State, along with four universities received the National Science Foundation grant. In fact, a total of four universities, including Oklahoma State, received the grant.