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Postcards III: Robot aircraft for hurricane research

By: Dr. Jeff Masters, 3:46 PM GMT on April 30, 2008

I'm in Orlando this week for the 28th Conference on Hurricanes and Tropical Meteorology, sponsored by the American Meteorological Society. The conference, held once every two years, brings together the world's experts on hurricane science.

Robot aircraft for hurricane research
The age of Uncrewed Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) for hurricane research is upon us. NASA promoted the use of their Global Hawk UAV in a talk Monday here in Orlando, and yesterday, talks about another UAV--the aerosonde--were delivered by Joe Cione and Guy Cascella of NOAA. Unlike the Global Hawk, the aerosonde has already made flights into hurricanes--into Category 1 Hurricane Ophelia in 2005, and into Category 1 conditions in the extratropical version of Hurricane Noel in 2007. The aerosonde can monitor conditions near the sea surface, where it is too dangerous to fly crewed aircraft. Data taken near the sea surface are particularly important for determining if a hurricane may undergo rapid intensification. The researchers propose to fly the Aerosonde as low as 200 feet inside a hurricane.

Figure 1. The Aerosonde in flight. Image credit:NASA.

The aerosonde is a $50,000 propeller-driven airplane with a 1.6 horsepower engine, made by Aerosonde, based in Melbourne, Australia. The plane can fly 2300 miles on 1.5 gallons of fuel at a cruising speed of 60 mph--good enough for a 20 hour flight. In 2007, an aerosonde spent 17.5 hours in 'Noreaster Noel off the U.S. East Coast, after the hurricane had transitioned to a powerful extratropical storm.

The aerosonde has not been given clearance by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to fly near the U.S. coast, because of concerns that the robot aircraft might encounter other aircraft skirting the storm, according to a Florida Sun Sentinel article posted earlier this year. The FAA does plan to give the aerosonde clearance late in 2008--with restrictions. So, for this year, the aerosonde will fly out of Barbados, where it has been given approval to fly. A 2-week research project is scheduled beginning September 1. So far, the aerosonde has not flown into anything stronger than a Category 1 storm, and the researchers are eager to test the aircraft in a "real" storm this year. The aerosonde will also be "on call" for rapid deployment anywhere in the Caribbean during the period September 15-October 31.

Jeff Masters

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.