Climate Scientists Are 'Hunting' Hurricanes With Specialized Drones

These drones could be eventually capable of flying into the most dangerous part of a hurricane.
Donovan Alexander

Properly monitoring hurricanes is now more important than ever. 2020's Atlantic hurricane season was quite literally a disaster (like the rest of the year?). Record after record fell as a new wave of unprecedented storms bombarded North and Central America.

The brutal hurricane season brought 30 named tropical storms, 13 hurricanes, and six significant hurricanes; the highest on record, the second-highest on record, and another second-highest on record, respectively. The season brought with it economic loss, fatalities, and crippling damage to infrastructure throughout the region. According to reports, this season was 73% more active than usual. Even though the season is now over, the wounds from these significant storms are still very fresh. Overall, hurricanes appear to be getting stronger.

In a study published on Nature, climate experts have stated that as the world warms from the effects of climate change, North Atlantic hurricanes will retain far more of their strength when they hit land. This, in turn, tends to lead to more destruction and fatalities. This "perfect storm" has led to the increased use of technologically advanced instruments for tracking and predicting hurricanes. Drones are emerging as a useful tool for climate scientists on the hunt for hurricanes. 

Drones could be the future of data collection

Climate scientists and meteorologists have been adopting drone technology in recent years too. Researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) believe that one-day drones may become a regular part of hurricane forecasting. In a paper published as recently as 2019, the NOAA demonstrated how disposable drones could gather data from a hurricane's lower eyewall — the most dangerous part of a hurricane. 

Real-time data from a hurricane's lower eyewall could prove to be extremely useful to meteorologists. This area indicates how strongly and quickly a storm will develop. A better understanding of the eyewall would allow forecasters to gather a more accurate picture of how a hurricane is progressing and could use this data to improve their forecasting model with higher accuracy in real-time. Crewed flights into this part of the storm are out of the question as this area of the hurricane has some of the strongest winds.

Since 2005, and in collaboration with Raytheon, NOAA has been developing drones capable of temporarily flying through the turbulent winds of a hurricane. Since around 2016, Raytheon's Coyote fixed-wing drones have been used to track important weather measurements like temperatures, pressure, wind speed, wind direction, humidity, and sea surface temperature. 

Drones will give researchers a better view of the highly dangerous lower-wall of a hurricane 

Climate Scientists Are 'Hunting' Hurricanes With Specialized Drones
An Altius uncrewed aircraft. Source: Weather Nation/NOAA

NOAA's drone project is continuing to get off the ground. In 2021, they tested their most advanced hurricane hunting drone yet, the Altius-600 uncrewed aircraft. Once the Altius passes its extensive testing, the drone could join the Coyote in collecting hurricane data from the lower eyewall. The Altius-600 also offers new data-gathering features, such as the ability to fly up to four hours and distances up to 265 miles (425 km) from its point of launch. Unfortunately, also like the Coyote, the Altius cannot be recovered when deployed in storms.

Over the years, NOAA has used two Lockheed WP-3D Orion four-engine turboprop aircraft to gather essential weather data. Of course, these planes stay far away from the violent lower eyewall, as it's too dangerous for piloted aircraft.

Instead, scientists aboard the planes release sensors tethered to parachutes, known as dropsondes. These gather data as they drop from the sky all the way down to the ocean, recording wind speed and direction, temperature, moisture, and pressure as they go. Though effective, dropsondes only give meteorologists a snapshot of a storm. Altius, would "provide something closer to a movie." 

Climate Scientists Are 'Hunting' Hurricanes With Specialized Drones
The Lockheed WP-3D. Source: Weather Nation/NOAA

"Dropsondes give us 'snapshots' of weather conditions, while the continuous flow of data collected by uncrewed aircraft provides something closer to a movie," says NOAA. "Deploying the uncrewed aircraft from NOAA Hurricane Hunters will ultimately help us better detect changes in hurricane intensity and overall structure."

The Altius is capable of collecting data for longer periods of time while creating a more holistic picture of a storm. However, compared to dropsondes cannot be recovered when deployed in storms. Currently, the NOAA is working alongside the Navy to get Altius up and running. 

More precise data would lead to better prediction models when storms reach landfall, protecting humans' lives and infrastructure where possible. Drones will be used to forecast storms and track the damage after a storm. 

Drone weather hurricane forecasting seems to be on the rise. Outside of NOAA, companies like Black Swift Technologies have created UAVs capable of flying scientific payloads in demanding atmospheric environments, such as high-altitude, arctic, desert, corrosive particulates, and strong turbulence. They expect to use their drones for atmospheric missions like assessing wildland fires, volcanoes, and tornadoes outside of hurricanes. Capable of flying remotely, these devices track things like velocity, pressure, temperature, humidity, and sea surface temperature, relaying the information back to a drop plane. Like the NOAA's Altius, Black Swift Technologies is currently testing their vehicles, pushing the endurance, communication range, and flight time of their hurricane-hunting vehicle. 

Climate Scientists Are 'Hunting' Hurricanes With Specialized Drones
Source: BST

Post-storm tracking, drones are also finding a place in environmental damage assessment. Just like their earthbound rover cousins, drones are becoming a powerful tool for surveying land post-hurricane. Drones are able to explore areas that may be hard to reach, access overall damage from the storm, and search for survivors. Drone technology still has a ways to go. These flying robots are useful and cheap tools that can immensely benefit meteorologists with studying hurricanes

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