By Jeff Martin, USA TODAY

Scientists plan to launch unmanned aerial vehicles over the Great Plains May 1 to June 15 in hopes of getting a better idea of how tornadoes form.

The remote-controlled planes, known as UAVs, will be part of a broader tornado study — VORTEX 2 — that will start its second phase May 1, says Don Burgess, a research scientist with the University of Oklahoma.

The study will take place in parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska, South Dakota, Iowa and Missouri, says Keli Tarp, a spokesperson with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Weather Partners in Norman, Okla.

VORTEX 2 (Verification of the Origins of Rotation in Tornadoes Experiment 2), which began last spring, is the largest-ever tornado experiment, Tarp says. The original VORTEX study in the mid-1990s helped inspire the Hollywood film Twister.

The UAVs are able to provide data high above the ground, providing a unique look at the storm, Burgess says. They are being added to the project as researchers believe they might be on the verge of a discovery about tornado formation, says Josh Wurman, president of the Center for Severe Weather Research in Boulder, Colo.

In recent months, scientists have been able to get a closer look at data collected about a June 5 Wyoming tornado intercepted during the project’s first phase last spring, Wurman says. The Wyoming storm showed them a “surge” — a secondary gust front — that formed shortly before the storm spawned a tornado, he said.

A single gust front is common in supercells, which are storms capable of producing a tornado. The discovery of the second gust front — and its potential role in creating a tornado — is what has researchers intrigued, Wurman says.

Until now, this second gust front has not been studied in great detail because it was difficult to detect without the sophisticated radar and other equipment that was in place last spring during the Wyoming storm, Wurman says.

The UAVs should provide an even better look, says Adam Houston, an assistant professor of meteorology at the University of Nebraska. They can measure temperature and moisture above the ground in the vicinity of a tornado, he said.

If researchers can prove that a secondary gust front is associated with the creation of a twister, they can focus on key questions such as how common the phenomenon is, and whether it leads to persistent and dangerous long-lasting tornadoes, Wurman says.

The Federal Aviation Administration approved the unmanned data-collecting airplanes for flights up to 1,000 feet in remote parts of Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska in the past year, says Brian Argrow, director of the Research and Engineering Center for Unmanned Vehicles at the University of Colorado. The UAV in this study, named Tempest, is a lightweight propeller-driven airplane with a 10-foot wingspan, he said.

One UAV will be flown at a time, but the scientists will have backup planes with them in case one is damaged. “We need to sample more storms, and hopefully in 2010, we’ll get that opportunity,” Burgess says.

Total funding for the Vortex 2 project is about $12 million from various sources, including the National Science Foundation, Burgess says.

This year, 76 tornadoes have been reported, which is 36% of the average, according to Greg Forbes, severe weather expert at the Weather Channel. “We will expect to see an increase in storms as we move toward May,” says Greg Carbin of the national Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla.

Martin reports for the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, S.D. Contributing: Doyle Rice, USA TODAY

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