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NOAA develops new drone technology to improve hurricane forecasting

Updated: Jun. 5, 2021 at 7:23 PM CDT
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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - The first hurricane hunting plane flew into the eye of a hurricane in August of 1944.

Over the past 77 years our technology has continued to improve, but now NOAA has a new piece of technology that they’re testing that could improve our forecasting even more going into the future.

Dropsondes have been used to gather weather data inside and around hurricanes since the 1960s. This is a proven technique, but NOAA has been working with the Navy and NASA to move a step forward in gathering even more data inside hurricanes.

These dropsondes collect weather data which is then ingested into hurricane models.
These dropsondes collect weather data which is then ingested into hurricane models.(NOAA)

Their plan is to not only continue to release dropsondes from hurricane hunting aircraft, but also to test the release of an Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) directly into tropical systems.

Test pilots Lt Cmdr Becky Shaw and Lt Cmdr Adam Abitbo
Test pilots Lt Cmdr Becky Shaw and Lt Cmdr Adam Abitbo(NOAA, Nick Underwood)

“So it’s a more complex concept, because in some ways you’re deploying a plane from a plane. You can kind of think of it as you taking a quick snapshot with what we have now. And this allows us to do a movie. So you can really see a whole lot more detail and get a lot more information that you would otherwise miss,” said Dr. Joe Cione, NOAA Hurricane Research

NOAA has been working on this technology with NASA since 2004. The latest version is called the ALTIUS-600 and is made right here in Georgia near Atlanta.

This UAS weighs 27 pounds, has a 9-foot wingspan once deployed and can fly up to four hours.

NOAA hopes to test the ALTIUS-600 in hurricanes this season
NOAA hopes to test the ALTIUS-600 in hurricanes this season(AREA-I)

NOAA was able to test the ALTIUS-600 earlier this year and they’re now ready for the next step.

“So we have a couple models this year, like three to four aircraft of the LTS aircraft that we are looking to potentially fly this year. And so now this is the chance where we can put rubber to the road a little bit and test how it works in an operational or in the dynamic environment, atmospheric environment, other hurricanes,” said NOAA Corps Lt. Commander Adam Abitbol.

Once in flight, the ALTIUS-600 can fly a pre-programmed path or it can be controlled by someone on board the hurricane hunting aircraft if needed.

Data such as wind, temperature and humidity will be sent back to the hurricane hunters by radio frequency. Data that the ALTIUS-600 can collect at a much lower level compared to the planes and their crew.

“I think one thing we’re excited about is, you know, having that information, it’s not just, you know, the surface temperature of the ocean, just having the drones to be able to look at the ocean heat content of the oceans. That’s huge, right? I mean, that’s just absolutely huge,” said NHC Director Ken Graham

NOAA hopes the ALTIUS-600 will be fully operational in a matter of years, adding one more piece of technology into the arsenal of improving hurricane track and intensity forecasting.

Dr. Cione holds a earlier model of a UAS in front of t P-3 Orion
Dr. Cione holds a earlier model of a UAS in front of t P-3 Orion(NOAA)

“You know, the improvement in the end is going to be our modeling. So if you get that data from the oceans, get that into the model, and we can get, you know, the satellite information, you know, get that into the model itself, and get the aircraft data from the hurricane hunters into the model, you get a better result,” said NHC Director Ken Graham.

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