Student Storm Chasers Develop Drones to Probe Killer Tornadoes

By By Joshua Learn, E&E reporter
October 26, 2014, 9:35:18 AM EDT

A group of mechanical engineering students are working on a project that will fly drones into the middle of tornadoes in an effort to learn more about the inner workings of these destructive storms.

Warren Causey, the founder of the "Sirens Project," said this better understanding could lead to increased warning times for incoming tornadoes.

"We're looking for patterns in supercell thunderstorms to differentiate which ones will produce tornadoes and which ones won't," said the 23-year-old mechanical engineering student at Southern Polytechnic State University in Georgia.

Currently, he said, the best warning systems can give only a 12- to 13-minute warning before the tornado. "If you're in the shower and you get a tornado warning and you miss it, you're kind of out of luck."

Knowing the specific mix of conditions that can trigger a tornado will also allow forecasters to cut down on false warnings. "There's a 70 percent false alarm rate," he said. "We can eliminate that cry-wolf situation by warning about the storms that actually need warning."

Causey was only 17 when he started chasing tornadoes. At 22, he was in the world's largest recorded tornado near El Reno, Okla., and was at one point only a few cars ahead of Tim Samaras -- a man featured on the Discovery Channel's "Storm Chasers" -- before Samaras was killed along with his son and another man when their car was picked up and tossed by the storm.

The car "was pretty much unrecognizable after that incident," Causey said.


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Following a pioneer and a victim

Samaras was the founder of a project called the Tactical Weather-Instrumented Sampling in/near Tornadoes EXperiment, or TWISTEX, which used different instruments to gather data on the elements that make up a tornado, including wind speeds and direction, humidity, and atmospheric pressure.

"Tim Samaras had been a very big pioneer in storm research, designing ground-based probes," Causey said.

The "Sirens" will make use of some of the TWISTEX instruments in a sensor package that will measure barometric pressure, temperature, G-forces and relative humidity.

"The sensor package is encased in what's similar to bulletproof Plexiglas," Causey said.

The idea isn't unlike the small deployable sensors used in the movie "Twister."

"They weren't too far off with a good idea there, but when the movie was made we didn't really have the technology to do something like that," he said, adding that it's one of the first instruments that will be able to gather 3-D data on tornadoes.

The main body looks a little like a miniature B-2 stealth bomber, with a body made of foam aviation fiberglass. The team has made several prototypes and will soon be finished with the drone it will use to fly into the storm, but Causey said the team will need likely several attempts before it can make its design work.

In order to fund the designs and the biggest expense -- costs related to storm chasing like food, gas and hotels -- the team has begun a Kickstarter campaign to help raise money.

"It's kind of rough on the nerves, but we'll see what happens," Causey said of the funding campaign.

The team members -- including Nolan Lunsford and Brent Bouthiller -- are also drone enthusiasts and have experience building remote-controlled, unmanned aircraft.

Causey said the drones can be operated by remote control with the help of a GoPro camera at a distance of 5 to 10 miles -- a situation that could limit the extreme danger that can lead to tragedies like that of Samaras and his crew.

Look, Mom, no more truck driving

"Instead of driving our truck into the tornado, we'll be flying the drone," Causey said.

"My mom wasn't too happy about [the storm chasing]," he added. But with the distance and remote-controlled sensing, his parents are a little more OK with his project.

The important thing for the Sirens Project is to make use of the so-called hook echo, which actually looks like the space inside a hook on satellite photos of the supercell storms that lead to tornadoes. These areas are usually favored by storm photographers who take advantage of their relative calmness and clarity. Causey said they will attempt to guide the drone into these areas.

"It's like a river with a canoe. We just place our drone into the inflow and let it take our drone into the tornado," he said. "Our drones are pretty quick, too, so it will be able to engage this."

Once in the tornado, the drone will begin to act like a piece of debris and will also help to gather information on how debris is accelerated and tossed around in the storms. The sensor is equipped with a GPS locator and sends back data that can be picked up through cellphone or Internet.

But the team still wants to minimize the damage to the sensor itself and make it easier to find it once again after the twister is through with it. Causey said the group will be on the lookout for tornadoes that hit open fields and are far away from population centers because they suck up less debris that could bang up the equipment.

"We're going to choose our tornadoes wisely; we're not going to choose a tornado that's going into a heavily populated area."

But he said that because this is the first time this has been attempted, it's unclear whether it will work as planned. The team has flown its prototypes in heavy winds and less-extreme storms, and other groups have contacted it already, interested to know how the project pans out.

"The Kickstarter would enable us to build more of the final design that we have. We're probably going to need multiple shots," he said.

Causey said the team will give the data to the university and make it available to anyone else as long as the team is given credit for it.

He said the name of the project has a double meaning -- intended as a reference to an alarm siren that gives an early storm warning and to "the sirens of the sea in Greece."

In ancient Greek legends, sirens were mythical female sea creatures who drew sailors to jump into the ocean and drown.

"The same as tornadoes kind of drew us in," Causey said about his fascination with the storms. "Tornadoes sing their siren song."

Reprinted from ClimateWire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. 202-628-6500.

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