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NOAA Uses Drones to Improve Hurricane Forecast Models


As Hurricane Gonzalo bears down on Bermuda, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration hurricane scientists are analyzing data from a recent experiment involving drones to improve hurricane forecast models in the future. 

Adapting military technology for civilian use, NOAA scientists dropped specially outfitted drones into Hurricane Edouard in September.  Edouard was a strong storm with a well-defined eye and posed no threat to land making it ideal for the experiment.

It marked the first successful test of how drones can provide improved data on hurricane intensity and how storms build energy.  The drones, called coyotes, are thin missile-shaped aircraft with retractable wings and covered with sensors.  They are able to fly at lower elevations than traditional hurricane hunter planes.

“And why that’s important is several reasons,” said NOAA Hurricane Research Scientist Joe Cione.  “One, we all live down there.  We live down near the surface so the conditions down there are where humans are impacted.  Secondly, that’s where the storm gets its energy.”

Currently, scientists drop canisters into storms that transmit back data, but those drops only provides a snapshot of information compared to the drone, which in the Sept. 16 test, spent 28 minutes spiraling through the eye of Hurricane Edouard.  The other drone followed spiraling wind currents from the outside of the storm.  Eventually Cione hopes to be able keep drones flying in a storm for up to three or four hours.

“By having this improved understanding we can improve the forecast models that we use to forecast intensity change and also gives us a chance to get those maximum winds so that the Hurricane Center can have that information immediately so that they can better prepare for any evacuations that may occur.”

NOAA scientists are currently still analyzing the data collected from the September experiment.  Funding for the drones come from Federal money provided following Hurricane Sandy.  No more drone deployments will occur in the current storm season, but pending future funds, Cione said he hopes to deploy more drone experiments next year.  The goal is to be using drones to improve hurricane forecast models on a routine basis by 2017.