TORNADO WEEK: UNL researchers hope to advance alerts

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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) -- The goal: Discovering just how tornadoes are formed using a combination of drones and ground-based data collection units.

That research project happening right here in Nebraska, and it might help revolutionize early tornado detection forecasting.

UNL Associate Professor Adam Houston is outfitting four ground-based data collection vehicles that will drive near storms that could produce tornadoes.

The lead investigator for the project, Houston hopes to provide three-dimensional models of storms.

“The focus is the small scale structures, that you can't see with conventional radars or other instrumentation but you really need to get up close using really hot and sophisticated instruments,” he said.

“The top is the wind monitor — it has a propeller and a vane,” he said. “The drones will be taking essentially the same types of data.”

These vehicles will be wirelessly tied to drones flying into the winds going into a tornado.

“It gives you a perspective that we don't get — we can't get — in any other way,” Houston said.

Each vehicle has three workstations where meteorologists will be analyzing data — temperature, wind speed, moisture, and pressure — collected from the drones and on the ground.

The vehicle guides a drone equipped with GPS that gather data while spiraling vertically. The cars will gather horizontal information, and share information immediately.

This project involves 60 people, including faculty, staff, and students from three separate universities.

Texas Tech and Colorado universities along with the National Severe Storms Laboratory are partnering with UNL in the project, funded by a three-year $2.4 million grant. Crews will cover areas from North Dakota to Texas, and Iowa to Wyoming beginning May 15.

Among them: grad student Alex Erwin.

“I really wanted the opportunity to do field work as a grad student and obviously this project is a big draw for me to the university,” he said.

Houston said this won't replace existing technology, but enhance it — and hopefully improve forecasting when tornadoes are forming and detection of potentially deadly storms.

“If we can understand the super cell itself, and the structures that exist within it, we can get a better idea of the mechanisms that ultimately lead to tornado genesis.