Per­fect storm

Popular Science - - TALES FIELD - JAMEY JA­COB,

When most storm chasers want to see inside a tor­nado, they set down sen­sors in its path. But those just sit in one place while the storm passes over. We build rugged drones that col­lect tem­per­a­ture, pres­sure, and hu­mid­ity data to hope­fully im­prove weather fore­cast­ing—while we keep our dis­tance. Some­times that means fly­ing into ex­treme weather just to see what hap­pens.

This past year, we were set­ting up equip­ment in a field when a tor­nado sud­denly formed about a mile away. In our world, that’s right on top of you. This mas­sive cloud wall dropped down, like a cliff. We could smell it emit­ting ozone and feel its elec­tric­ity. It was ex­hil­a­rat­ing.

Tor­na­does typ­i­cally last less than five min­utes once they touch down, so we had to act fast and launch an off-the-shelf quadro­copter with just a few sen­sors on it. You can’t get much data from one drone, but we did learn the winds weren’t as vi­o­lent as we thought: about 40 or 50 miles an hour.

Now we have drone swarms that fly in dif­fer­ent con­fig­u­ra­tions, giv­ing us mul­ti­ple data points for each storm. Hope­fully we’ll be ready next time one forms on top of us. You never know. Fore­cast­ing has a long way to go!

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