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Could storm-chasing UAVs help predict tornadoes?

Gathering vital data from tornado-spawning storms, these aircraft could keep more people out of harm's way.

Oklahoma State University

In the wake of the colossal tornado that rampaged through 17 miles of central Oklahoma, plans for storm-chasing UAVs are taking on new significance.

Students at Oklahoma State University have been working on "storm-penetrating air vehicles" that could help cope with deadly tornadoes.

The aircraft are "designed to penetrate thunderstorms, including the supercells that spawn tornadoes" to gather data used to predict storms and warn people about them, the university said in a release.

The three vehicles designed by engineering students could also be used to build better predictive models of tornado-spawning storms.

Storm chasers, who put themselves at risk gathering storm and tornado data, could benefit from the use of UAVs, too.

Laden with cameras, sensors, and dropsonde weather reconnaissance devices, they can be launched from dirt roads or truck-mounted catapults. They are then remote-piloted into storms, where they can fly for up to 10 hours, collecting information, and then land on unimproved surfaces such as dirt roads.

"Oklahoma, along with many regions in the U.S., has to deal with severe weather year round but the often violent thunderstorms witnessed in the springtime are particularly worrisome," Jamey Jacob, a professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, was quoted as saying. "Better prediction methods can save lives, but this also requires more data about how storms form."