Drones will soon probe tornadoes' mysteries

Union City residents search for whatever can be salvaged from the ruins of a home hit by Saturday's tornado.  Photo / AP
Union City residents search for whatever can be salvaged from the ruins of a home hit by Saturday's tornado. Photo / AP

When it premiered in 1996, Twister put forth a fantastical science fiction idea: release probes into a storm to find which tornadoes could turn into killers.

It's no longer fiction. Oklahoma State University researchers are designing and building sleek, Kevlar-reinforced unmanned aircraft - or drones - to fly directly into storms and send back real-time data to first responders and forecasters.

"We have all the elements in place," said Stephen McKeever, Oklahoma's secretary of science and technology. "We have the world's best natural laboratory."

Oklahoma is the heart of Tornado Alley, and has emerged battered, yet standing, from seven tornadoes with winds exceeding 320km/h. The May 20 tornado in Moore that killed 24 people was one.

Yesterday the toll from the latest tornadoes on Saturday reached 14 in total with 11 in Oklahoma, including a mother and her baby who were sucked out of a car.

In Missouri, authorities said three people died from severe flooding in the wake of the storms.

If all goes as planned, Oklahoma State's drones will detect the making of a tornado based on humidity, pressure and temperature data collected while travelling through the guts of a storm - critical details that could increase lead time in severe weather forecasts.

The drones would also be equipped to finally answer meteorologists' most pressing questions.

"Why does one storm spawn a tornado and the other doesn't, and why does one tornado turn into an EF1 and another into an EF5?" asked Jamey Jacob of the university's School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, which is developing the drones.

They could be operating in roughly five years, designers estimate. They are safely controlled by operators with a laptop or iPad, are a fraction of the cost of manned research aircraft and are more reliable than sending up weather balloons to divine a storm's intentions.

The latest tornadoes ripped through the areas of El Reno, Union City and Yukon, just west of Oklahoma City and about 30km from Moore. At least 70 people were injured.

Five tornadoes struck with winds of up to 145km/h, accompanied by very large hailstones. The storms flipped cars and trapped people in their vehicles during rush-hour traffic on a main road.

Brandi Vanalphen, 30, who was among the hundreds of drivers trapped, said: "What got me scared was being stuck in traffic with sirens going off. I started seeing power flashes to the north. I started driving on the shoulder. People started driving over the grass."

- Daily Telegraph UK

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