Chasing twisters with new radar

Meteorology and engineering students study storms with Skyler

When Robin Tanamachi and Stephen Frasier see a tornado, they head straight for it.

So when they had a chance to use a new type of radar to study how severe storms form, they ran right at that, too.

Tanamachi, a professor at Purdue University, and Frasier, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, are longtime colleagues whose latest collaboration centered on the Skyler radar – a mobile sensor built by Raytheon Intelligence & Space that is also used to track small drones. 

“If you can’t bring the storms to Skyler, maybe you can bring Skyler to the storms by putting the radar on a truck, taking it out in the field and getting it in front of some tornadic supercells,” Tanamachi said. “That would be an enormous advance over what we’ve been doing thus far with mobile phased array and mobile dual pole radar.”

 As it turned out, yes, you can bring Skyler to storms – and yes, its mobility put the researchers in a great position to maximize their data collection during a field trip to the Midwest in June 2019.

Frasier’s team – they’re electrical engineers – made customizations on the software side and on the physical deployment of the radar to meet the research objective, which was to scan the overall structure of storms and watch the evolution of the overall storm structure.

“Skyler was extremely easy to use, deploying in a few minutes,” Frasier said. “Conventional radars have a big parabolic dish antenna, while Skyler was just a simple box, which we didn’t even need to rotate mechanically.”

Have some fun

“Raytheon Technologies has basically expressed a lot of confidence in us: ‘Here’s the hardware; here’s the manual; go have fun.’ They have not really restricted us in any way in terms of what we can do with the system,” he said.

UMass is affiliated with the Engineering Research Center for Collaborative Adaptive Sensing of the Atmosphere and has been working with Raytheon Technologies for years. Building an instrument like Skyler is extremely challenging, Frasier said. UMass does not have the resources to do that, and he expressed gratitude to have access to the equipment.

Purdue created a course that allowed students to go out in the field to witness severe storms and get their hands on research-grade instrumentation to record storm observations. Skyler played a big part in their research.

Frasier said weather scientists like phased array scans because they’re generally faster and can update a picture of the storm about every 30 seconds – something conventional scanning radars simply can’t do.

The chase is on

The day starts with a weather briefing led by the students. They decide where to go, called the “target area,” then typically spend a few hours driving there,

“We’re looking for things like the availability of moisture, a source of lift, a source of wind shear, those are all ingredients that we really need to get thunderstorms to form,” Tanamachi said.

Once at the site, the team starts launching weather balloons to sample the environment. If they like what they see, they stay put. If they don’t, they go somewhere else.

“And then when storms actually start forming, that’s when we break out Skyler, turn it on and start scanning the storms as they’re developing and/or as they’re producing severe weather,” Tanamachi said.

Skyler revealed storm interactions the team probably would have missed with other radars – and provided faster, more accurate data than the team previously accessed.

“Skyler is definitely meeting the need for getting rapid scan polar metric updates in supercells in a way that no previous mobile radar has before,” Tanamachi said. “We’re just not getting data like that from the operational radar network that the National Weather Service operates.”

Check out our Skyler Stormchaser video series here.