Turn to drones and other instruments to hunt hurricanes

Forecasters from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, predict another season of “above normal” hurricane activity – the seventh year in a row.

To track and predict these storms, scientists rely on data from satellites, radars and aircraft.

This year, in addition to this technology, NOAA personnel will also use a fleet of autonomous vehicles in the air and at sea to reveal new data about what happens during the worst of a storm.

According to Jason Dunion, director of NOAA’s hurricane field program, it’s not just the sky we should be looking at when studying these storms. The following is an edited transcript of his conversation with Kimberly Adams.

Jason Dunion: We’re talking about the atmosphere, it’s a very important part of what makes a hurricane tick, but so is the ocean. So we test many different platforms. We have buoys. We have an instrument called Saildrone which is very interesting and sailed right into a hurricane last year collecting all kinds of observations where we don’t want to send ships, but we don’t mind sending a drone . We get information about the waves and the temperature of the ocean. We even have hurricane gliders, so these float in the ocean, and they do these dives from the surface down to several hundred feet, to give us an idea of ​​well, we know what the temperature is like from the surface of the ocean? What does it look like down there? Because there’s more energy there, that warm water can help fuel the storm, so that’s very important information that we can gather as well.

Jason Dunion (Courtesy of NOAA)

Kimberly Adams: This year, you’re also trying something new to monitor hurricanes as they form: small, self-driving planes. How it works ?

Union: So these are unmanned aircraft systems. The advantage of these, they are small winged planes that have a wingspan of about 6 to 8 feet, so they are quite small, is that we can actually launch them from our hurricane fighters P- 3. So rather than launching them hundreds or even hundreds of miles away from the storm, we actually fly the plane towards the storm and then jettison them directly into the environment. And they can fly for an hour, two hours, even three hours, sampling parts of the storm that we don’t usually sample.

Adam: And are these drones coming back, or are they just kind of storm-beaten and descending into the abyss?

Union: The drones that we’re testing right now – it’s sort of the experimental phase – we’ve launched them, we get the data we want, and they’ll eventually go to the ocean, and we won’t get them back. The long-term plan would be to have these drones that can actually be deployed from airplanes and then come back to, say, a base in Florida, or somewhere similar, so that we can reuse them again. We are not there yet. But I think that would be kind of a long-term view of how we would like to use these drones.

An infographic illustration shows a variety of autonomous tools on a stormy ocean floor, including drones, saildrones, gliders, dropsondes and floats.
An illustration shows the variety of autonomous instruments NOAA is using to monitor hurricanes this season. (Courtesy of NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory).

Adam: So where does all this data that you collect from the instruments come from, where does all this data go?

Union: So a lot of the data is sent to the forecast centers, because we want the forecasters to have access to that data. At the same time, we want to pass all of this data to modeling centers so they can ingest it and get a better representation of: what the environment around the storm looks like, or what the inner core storm looks like- same . The combination of the data that we send to the different centers really gives us the most bang for our buck, in terms of the hurricane hunting that we do.

Adam: And when you talk about these modeling centers, you’re talking about supercomputers that analyze all kinds of data to spit out storms and short-term forecasts, as well as long-term forecasts, on the climate as well.

Union: Yeah, that’s a good point. We have models looking at weather patterns all over the world. We also have hurricane models that simply focus their models on the storm itself. So the data is not only really important right now, but it is important for the model’s predictions for two days, five days, or even a few weeks.

Adam: You all have used some of these instruments before, what is specifically different about the way you are using them this year?

Union: We really want to watch the rapid intensification of hurricanes. It’s the storms, they’re very rare – the 95th percentile of hurricanes – that escalate quickly, 35 miles per hour in a single day. They are therefore very difficult to predict. And they can also pose a real danger to coastal residents when it comes to preparing for a storm that could go from Category 1 to Category 3, overnight. So if we can start separating out some of these ingredients that are really important for rapid scaling up, that will help us in the future.

Adam: The research is so exciting and these tools are really interesting. But we are talking about storms that cost tens of millions or even billions of dollars in damage and can pose such a risk to people’s lives. What impact do you think this type of technology will have on people who live in these at-risk areas?

Union: Yes, if I look at all this technology – and as a researcher, it’s exciting to make these advances. But we always have to remember that the reason we’re doing this is to improve forecasting. So if we can improve forecasting incrementally every year, all of those improvements really lead to what we’re trying to do is really save lives and protect property so that people along the coast have the best possible forecast .

Saildrone Explorer SD 1045 records video during its adventure through Hurricane Sam on September 30, 2021 (Courtesy of NOAA and Saildrone, Inc.)

Jason mentioned the Saildrone. NOAA has video of an instrument as it weathers Category Four Hurricane Sam last year.

While NOAA works to improve hurricane predictions, FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, works to make homes and buildings in the path of these storms more resilient. Last week, the agency announced an initiative to update building codes so structures can better survive hurricanes, floods and other natural disasters.

And NOAA isn’t alone in deploying drones during natural disasters. AT&T is upgrading its drone service in disaster areas to bring 5G to areas where large storms knock out phone networks. CNET reports that in the company’s first tests, the drones flew 300 feet in the air, providing coverage of about 10 miles on the ground.

AT&T hopes to be able to deploy the drones in about a month if they need them. I guess it depends on the forecast.

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