Hurricane hunting drones: The future of tropical forecasting

Traveling for hours, covering hundreds of miles through the most dangerous parts of a storm

Snapshot of the drone being released from the Hurricane Hunter Aircraft (NOAA)
Snapshot of the drone being released from the Hurricane Hunter Aircraft (NOAA)

Before we know it, June first will be upon us and tracking tropical systems will be part of our everyday lives. But even outside Hurricane Season, hurricane hunters remain busy working on testing new tools that could greatly improve hurricane forecasts.

Last month the NOAA Hurricane Hunters launched a new uncrewed aircraft over Maryland that has the potential to change the world of tropical forecasting.

Over the past 77 years, Hurricane Hunters have been perfecting the art of flying into the heart of a storm. In recent years, the agency has been using two WP-3D Orion aircrafts, named Kermit and Miss Piggy, to gather vital weather data to create the most accurate forecast possible.

But these piloted missions into the eye of a storm come with some challenges, including the safety of those on board. During their flight, hunters avoid the most dangerous section of the storm, which is down at the surface called the lower eyewall boundary. But it’s here, where the high winds and towering ocean waves can hold valuable information of a storm.

Right now, meteorologists rely on dropsondes. These are tubes packed with weather instruments tied to a parachute. These are strategically dropped during the flight, and are used to measure factors such as temperature, wind speed and moisture. But these weather collectors are limited, in that they only record a snapshot of a storm.

This is where research-weather drones come into play. Rather than having just a snapshot, there is now the potential to view a steady stream of data from inside the storm.

An Altius uncrewed aircraft (research drone) at landing. This model is similar to those being tested by scientists aboard NOAA Hurricane Hunters. (Courtesy of Area-I/With permission)

Right now, NOAA is working alongside Area-1, a Georgia based aerospace company that created ALTICUS-600. According to NOAA, the drone offers exciting, new data-gathering features such as the ability to fly up to four hours and distances up to 265 miles from its launch point.

The lead meteorologist from the NOAA’s Hurricane Research Division, Joseph Cione, says “deploying the un-crewed aircraft from NOAA Hurricane Hunters will ultimately help us better detect changes in hurricane intensity and overall structure. "

This is welcomed news in the weather world, especially after the 2020 pandemic stunted the progress in long range forecasting. Although tropical forecast accuracy has increased over the past few decades; the coronavirus pandemic did not help.

According to the World Meteorological Organization, the lockdown caused the elimination of about 75-80% of aircraft and other observations globally. These observation tools, which include commercial airplanes, are used to collect weather data that is imputed to weather models. The lack of weather observations has a direct impact on the margin of error of forecasts.

World Meteorological Organization: Global Observing System

The biggest setback with these weather researching drones, will be the price. The new uncrewed aircraft system, like dropsondes, cannot be recovered after being deployed in storms.


About the Author:

Candace joined the News 6 team as the weekend morning meteorologist and reporter. She comes to Central Florida from Miami.