Launched into Hurricane Ian, the first ever drone ALTIUS-600 sent data from most dangerous parts of the storm

The drone was launched by the NOAA WP-3D Orion nicknamed Kermit.
Loukia Papadopoulos
NOAA Lockheed WP-3D Orion N42RF also known as Kermit.jpg
NOAA Lockheed WP-3D Orion N42RF also known as Kermit


This week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) made history by launching the first ALTIUS-600 drone ever to fly into a hurricane, according to a report by The War Zone published Thursday morning. The drone was launched by the NOAA WP-3D Orion nicknamed Kermit.

Extreme turbulence

The aircraft was rocked by turbulence so extreme that many aboard endured severe air sickness. NOAA Hurricane Hunter Nick Underwood called the event in a tweet "the roughest flight of my career so far."

"We got slammed pretty hard," told The War Zone Joe Cione, Lead Meteorologist for New Technologies at NOAA's Atlantic Oceanographic & Meteorological Laboratory.

He further added that Nick Liccini and Patrick Sosa, the two employees onboard the aircraft from AREA-I, the Marietta, Georgia company that makes the ALTIUS-600 “were real heroes too, because both of them were sick and not feeling well at all and they still managed to do the job.”

Liccini and Sosa had the difficult task of helping to guide the ALTIUS-600 drone straight into the eye of Hurricane Ian to collect the necessary data to track the storm.

“We managed to launch the drone and babysat it for a few minutes so it could get its bearings. And we did all that under conditions where we had just some very severe turbulence,” Cione said.

Even better, the ALTIUS-600 continued to fly for two hours after being launched, providing crucial data that Kermit could never produce. Luckily, Kermit’s passengers and crew were able to maintain communications with the drone from a distance of 125 nautical miles.

“The drone was in there and we were outside the winds while the drone was measuring what it could while we were safe and away from the most violent aspects of that storm,” Cione added.

NOAA operates three hurricane hunter aircraft out of its Aircraft Operations Center in Lakeland, Florida: two WP-3D Orions and a Gulfstream IV-SP.

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The ALTIUS 600

Meanwhile, the ALTIUS-600 is part of the ALTIUS family of autonomous tube-launched drones or Air Launched Effects “that are available on-demand and operational within minutes,” according to the company’s website. Cione said his NOAA team worked with AREA-I to engineer a drone that can fly “very, very low, a couple of hundred feet” off the surface at altitudes “otherwise too dangerous for manned aircraft.”

Cione said this project was undertaken because the “boundary layer right near the surface is where we all live, right? That's where our buildings are. So we want to know, especially with the winds, what's going on down at that altitude. And to do that more accurately, we need more measurements and these drones can give us those measurements at very unsafe altitudes in the most dangerous parts of the storm.”

Cione further noted that the drone’s involvement in Ian’s data collection mission proved the project as successful since other than some directional commands, the ALTIUS-600 operated autonomously, even after Kermit moved out of the hurricane’s eye.

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