Oklahoma was hit particularly hard by two massive outbreaks this year in what's been another deadly season of tornadoes in the U.S. Despite technology and forecasting improvements, scientists still have plenty to learn about how and why tornadoes form.
Currently, one of the best ways for researchers to understand how tornadoes form is to chase them. So off they go with mobile science laboratories, rushing toward storms armed with research equipment and weather-sensing probes.
It's dangerous work. Three chasers died in one of Oklahoma's May tornadoes because the storm unexpectedly changed directions. And there's also a lot left to chance — only 20 percent of supercell thunderstorms produce tornadoes.
"It's a loaded gun," says Jamey Jacob, an aerospace engineering professor at Oklahoma State University, of the big weather systems. "It's ready to go off, but when and where does it fire?"
One of the downsides of the current tornado research method is that it's passive, Jacob says. "You throw [probes] out there, [and] you hope something gets caught up [in the storm] somewhere," he says.
So he and dozens of other scientists and engineers are remaking tornado technology. They're looking to small drone aircraft loaded with sensors that can be launched from the trunk of a car, far from a potential tornado.
"With unmanned aircraft," Jacob says, "you fly it where you want it to go."
If you open up these drones, the contents could have come from a middle school science project. But the Kevlar shell and the tiny sensors are fit for a high-tech military plane.
Brian Argrow directs the research and engineering center for unmanned aerial vehicles at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
"Being able to sample the pressure, temperature, humidity, wind velocity — that you can't do remotely," he says. "Radar can only do so much at this point."
Scientists think these drones can help them increase warning time from the current 14-minute average to as much as an hour. Argrow says the technology exists, and the planes are ready to go, but many of them are stuck in university laboratories, frustrating researchers.
"It's often that technology gets ahead of policy, particularly in this country, and this is an instance where that essentially has happened," he says. "Some of the technology — the capability, anyway — has gotten ahead of what the current air traffic system is able to accommodate directly."
The Federal Aviation Administration declined to be interviewed for this story, but Argrow and his team started working with the agency in 2009 to integrate the new storm-chasing technology into the nation's airspace. They were able to fly into a few storms back then. But it's a very slow, bureaucratic process that doesn't mesh well with fast-developing thunderstorms.
Scientists think if new policies are put in place, these aerial chasers could be widely operational in five years, allowing meteorologists to make more accurate tornado warnings.