Nebraska researchers to lead storm study with drones

Photo Credit: Drone in sky
August 30, 2018

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln will lead the most ambitious investigation of severe storms and tornadoes using drones ever conducted.

"We're very excited to undertake this challenging project," Adam Houston, associate professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, said. "It's been something that we've been working towards since the proof-of-concept work we did back in 2010 as part of VORTEX2. The technological and regulatory climate has evolved considerably since that time and we're now able to fly more aircraft, cover more territory for each flight, and operate over a much larger area than we could back then. Thus, the prospects for collecting transformational data are much better."

The TORUS project (Targeted Observation by Radars and UAS of Supercells) will be conducted by more than 50 scientists and students deploying a broad suite of cutting-edge instrumentation into the Great Plains during the 2019 and 2020 storm seasons.

TORUS involves not only the University of Nebraska-Lincoln but also the University of Colorado Boulder, Texas Tech University, the National Severe Storms Laboratory, and the University of Oklahoma. "TORUS will not only involve seasoned scientists but also undergraduate and graduate students from the universities involved," Houston said. "This will be a great opportunity for these students to see how observational science is conducted and to learn skills that transcend the classroom."

Instrumentation includes 4 unmanned aircraft systems (drones), 3 mobile radars, 8 mobile mesonets (trucks mounted with meteorological instrumentation), a mobile LIDAR (similar to a radar but using an eye-safe laser), 3 mobile sounding systems (balloon-borne sensor packages), and the NOAA P3 manned aircraft.

The project aims to use the data collected to improve the conceptual model of supercell thunderstorms (the parent storms of the most destructive tornadoes) by exposing how small-scale structures within these storms might lead to tornado formation. These structures are hypothesized to be nearly invisible to all but the most precise research-grade instruments. But by revealing the hidden composition of severe storms and associating it to known characteristics of the regularly-observed larger scale environment, the TORUS project could improve supercell and tornado forecasts.