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Robot aircraft get major funding for hurricane work

By: Dr. Jeff Masters, 12:36 AM GMT on January 25, 2008

The 88th annual meeting of the American Meteorological Society, the world's largest gathering of meteorologists, has drawn to a close here in New Orleans. The biggest news, from my biased view as a former Hurricane Hunter, was the announcement Tuesday of funding for a major project to fly remotely piloted aircraft into hurricanes. NOAA has approved a $3 million research program that will use these aircraft (also called Uncrewed Aerial Vehicles, or UAVs) for three purposes: to take measurements in the core of hurricanes, track how fast Arctic summer ice melts, and take observations of Pacific storms that represent a flood risk to the U.S. West Coast. One of the aircraft planned for the study, the aerosonde, successfully flew into what was the core of Hurricane Noel on November 2, 2007. The hurricane had just completed the transition to a powerful extratropical storm as it moved northward along the U.S. East Coast. The aerosonde spent 7.5 hours in the storm, recording winds as high as 80 mph at altitudes as low as 300 feet.

"A big chunk of the atmosphere remains relatively unobserved. I think unmanned aircraft are a key to that solution and they will become ubiquitous in the coming decade," said Marty Ralph, a research meteorologist at NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratory, Colorado, in press release published by BBC News. In particular, the "atmospheric boundary layer"--the region close to the surface--is a very dangerous place to fly a crewed aircraft in, but is an essential part of the atmosphere to sample in order to learn more about how hurricanes intensify. Collecting data with UAVs offers real hope that we can finally make headway making better hurricane intensity forecasts.

Image: the aerosonde getting launched from a pickup truck. Image credit: NASA.

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.