This new drone could send hurricane forecasting into the future

Meet ALTIUS-600, the newest member of the Hurricane Hunters team

Over the years, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists have experimented with different weather instruments and technology, but this hurricane season, a new drone could have the opportunity to propel hurricane research into the future.

LAKELAND, Fla. – Over the years, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists have experimented with different weather instruments and technology, but this hurricane season, a new drone could have the opportunity to propel hurricane research into the future.

Lt. Cmdr. Adam Abitbol is a test pilot for NOAA and has flown into hurricanes for years. This season, he’ll be flying alongside a new member, a drone named ALTIUS-600.

Crews from NOAA & Area-I before Altius' test flight in January 2021

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“It will be a new first for us here at NOAA and we’re excited about it for the season,” Abitbol said while standing in the hangar at the NOAA Aircraft Operations Center in Lakeland.

Hurricane Hunters are a team of pilots and meteorologists who fly into the eye of a storm. Right now, Hurricane Hunters rely on dropsondes, small, one-pound cylinder instruments that collect data while freefalling out of the WP-P3 Orion Hurricane Hunter.

ALTIUS weighs about 25 pounds and has a wingspan of 8 feet after it is deployed out of the hurricane hunter.

Dr. Joseph Cione, a lead meteorologist at NOAA, is no stranger to hurricane-hunting drones. In 2014, Cione led his team to deploy the first drone, named Coyote, into a tropical system.

“We’re going (to) the next level. You still want dropsondes on occasion, because you don’t want to always drop a drone, but using drones is going to get us to beyond a dropsonde,” Cione said.

This new uncrewed aerial system, UAS, was created by Area-I, a private company specializing in drone technology. Lindsey Carroll, an Area-I engineer, explained why the drone does beyond a dropsonde.

“We actually integrated the same pressure, temperature and humidity sensor that is in the dropsonde, onto (the) nose of ALTIUS. In addition to that, we also added other sensors to add more data that they can collect from a hurricane,” Carroll explained.

Photo Credit: Area-I

One of the new, exciting sensors monitors sea surface temperatures underneath the storm. This will help meteorologists pinpoint how warm or cool the waters have become, helping in the track and intensity forecasting.

Although ALTIUS-600 is new to the hurricane-hunting world, it’s capabilities and skills surpass its predecessor, Coyote. This new version can fly for several hours and travel 200 miles away from the P3 while continuously streaming in data.

“The drone can last up to four hours collecting data and give us that continuity data in the boundary layer, which is really where our heavy level of interest is right now on trying to refine that track and intensity forecast,” Abitbol said.

The boundary layer is a very complex zone near the surface, known for its abrupt turbulence and towering waves.

This concerned Cione.

“We live near the surface, so we want to know what the winds are, we want to know what this thing is doing right at the surface, and that’s also where a storm feeds itself, so we want to get down there but it’s too dangerous,” he said.

Since this area is too dangerous for hunters to fly into, forecasters are left relying on dropsondes, which only last about three minutes in this crucial zone before crashing into the ocean, limiting their knowledge and data -- that was, until now.

“We are obviously not going to risk human life but we still want to measure down there, so we get these drones and get them in these areas and when we lose them, it’s not a big deal. They give us the data we need, and we’re safe,” Cione said.

The air-launched drone will also have its own set of preloaded missions, essentially becoming its own separate mini hurricane hunter.

“It will eject out of the aircraft. Once cleared of the aircraft, it will deploy its flight services and begin flying, so we can almost do two independent missions of data collection. As you can imagine, this is a force multiplier in the storm,” Abitbol said.

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

The vital data that is collected by ALTIUS will be sent back to the hurricane hunter aircraft, which will then be delivered to hurricane forecasters and researchers back at the National Hurricane Center.

Cione said that could impact forecasting for years to come.

“This helps us in a real way, in a real world, in an economically viable way, to do this. It also allows us to understand the storm from a science standpoint. So we’re improving things immediately. Do we get out of harm’s way? And later, better forecasts. So, it’s a win-win for everyone,” he said.

Just like dropsondes, the drones will also be expendable. Meaning, once the mission is completed, ALTIUS will terminate in the open ocean.

ALTIUS has a few more tests to complete before it is used on an official mission. If all stays on course, NOAA hopes to start trying ALTIUS this hurricane season.

“It’s a really new and exciting environment we’re going to take into the 2021 season,” Abitbol said.

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About the Author:

Candace Campos joined the News 6 weather team in 2015.