It's that time of year when coastal communities in the US, especially on the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts, brace themselves for the upcoming hurricane season. These hurricanes can cause extensive damage, not only to lives but also to the economy.
Tracking and predicting when hurricanes will hit land, and how strongly they'll do so, is crucial. It's also complex and tricky. Organizations such as the National Hurricane Center (NHC) are responsible for forecasting tropical cyclones in the Atlantic basin.
The NHC's hurricane forecast process includes using observations from satellites, reconnaissance aircraft, ships, buoys, radar, and land-based systems, among others, as the University of Rhode Island's Hurricane Science study explains. Collecting that data requires a lot of coordination, and still, predictions can fall short.
To help this process, an ocean drone company Saildrone has partnered with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory (PMEL) and Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory (AOML) on a mission that will send five uncrewed surface vehicles (USVs) straight into the eye of the storm.
The USVs, or ocean drones, will launch from the US Virgin Islands and will be stationed in areas of the Atlantic Ocean where they will collect in-situ data immediately before and during a hurricane.
Scientists from PMEL and AOML will pilot the orange floating drones directly into a series of hurricanes, to better understand how they intensify so quickly — with the ultimate hope of saving lives and minimizing economic disasters.
Currently, Saildrone's wind- and solar-powered USVs are the only autonomous vehicle that can collect meteorological and environmental data above and below the sea surface, all while surviving a hurricane's impact.
Richard Jenkins, Saildrone founder and CEO said that "Saildrone will be able to go where no scientific vessel has ever ventured, right into the eye of the hurricane, and gather data that could make communities around the world safer from these destructive storms."
The team has its work cut out for it, as it's extremely hard to accurately predict a storm's intensity and how strong it'll become. Moreover, collecting live data during a storm is also extremely tricky.
"Of course, that is extremely difficult given the danger of these storms. We hope that data collected with saildrones will help us to improve the model physics, and then, in turn, we will be able to improve hurricane intensity forecasts," explained Dr. Jun Zhang, a scientist in the Hurricane Research Division at NOAA/AOML.
Last year, the U.S. recorded a near-record-breaking season for hurricanes in the Atlantic, predicting a total of 24 storms. Across the Gulf of Mexico, double hurricanes hit the area, and Hurricane Laura made landfall in Louisiana.
Scientists around the world are working hard to more accurately predict, monitor, and quell these types of storms, from specialized air drones to creating cold bubble nets and now to 23-foot saildrones.