ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Since 1943, Hurricane Hunter missions have been flying directly into hurricanes to get critical data from inside the storm.
The information gathered from the hurricanes is invaluable for making accurate forecasts, but along with the inherent dangers, manned missions can only do so much.
This is where drones, or unmanned aircraft, have been able to revolutionize the ability to gather information about potentially life-threatening storms. In 2010, NASA flew its Global Hawk over Hurricane Earl, marking the first time an unmanned drone flew over a fully formed hurricane.
Since then, NASA has flown numerous Global Hawk missions in partnership with the NOAA and the National Hurricane Center gathering hurricane information. The Global Hawks unmanned aircraft can fly up to three times longer than traditional hurricane hunter flights and can fly at altitudes greater than 55,000 feet where information only satellites could get the information before.
What's even more impressive is that the Global Hawk can gather information that even the latest satellites are not able to observe.
These high-flying endurance drones do have limitations. Just like the hurricane hunters, they can’t fly down into the worst part of a hurricane. This is where these expendable drones called Coyotes come in.
Right now, the hurricane hunters are only able to drop an instrument through the storm and as the instrument falls it’s only able to record an instant in time. These unmanned aircraft are also dropped from their hurricane hunter planes but can fly up to an hour through the strongest part of the storm near the ocean surface, where it’s too dangerous for other aircraft to fly.
Flying and gathering information at the surface is especially important since this is what most impacts us and our property. In 2017, six Coyote drones were deployed into the eye of Hurricane Maria and were able to send back data directly to the National Hurricane Center to help give a better idea of what exactly was happening inside the worst part of the storm.
One drone specifically measured wind speeds of 143 mph, which was the strongest wind ever recorded by an unmanned aircraft.
While the technology used with both the Global Hawk and the Coyotes are exciting, scientists stress that these programs are both very much still in the experimental phase. In fact, neither the Global Hawk or the Coyotes are scheduled to be used in the 2018 hurricane season.
The next generation of Coyotes, however, are planned to be used in 2019.
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