The storm chasers of the future are lifting off today. Researchers at Oklahoma State University are developing a fleet of data-collecting drones that may help forecasters—and residents of tornado-prone regions—get ahead of dangerous weather events.
Not all storms are the same when it comes to predictability. Hurricanes and blizzards are pretty easy to spot. Meteorologists can typically call them days ahead of time. But tornadoes are wild, and they can whip up suddenly. Right now, our instruments can only spot a tornado 10 to 15 minutes before it happens. That’s simply not enough time for those in danger to get out of the way.
And while weather balloons are useful, their success depends on being in the right place at the right time. "Once dropped, they can’t move and thus are subject to the unpredictable nature of a storm," mechanical engineer Jamey Jacob told Popular Science. The ideal monitoring vehicle will be steerable, durable, and loaded with sensors.
Enter the drones.
Jacob and his colleagues hope to integrate the drones into normal forecasting instrument arrays within the next four years.
"Eventually what we want is to get to a point where you're watching the weather channel," says Jacob, "and they're reporting data that they're getting from the drones, and nobody cares—it's just the data that's coming in."
Once everything is up and running, Jacob told PBS NewsHour, the drones will ideally be able to extend storm warnings from 10 or 15 minutes to as much as an hour—which could give local residents enough time to prepare, batten down the hatches, or evacuate. “And you know that’s really going to save lives in the end.”