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!