Drones on Hurricane Hunt

One of the promises of unmanned airplanes has been that they would handle jobs that were too dangerous for flesh-and-blood pilots to handle -- not just over a battlefield, but here at home, as well.drone_storm_small.jpgHere's a mission which fits that perfectly: Last week, an Aerosonde drone took off from southern Florida, rode through Tropical Storm Ophelia, and "provided the first-ever detailed observations" of a killer storm's "near-surface, high wind... environment."

"Today we saw what hopefully will become 'routine' in the very near future," Joe Cione, a researcher at the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration's Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory, said in a statement. "If we want to improve future forecasts of hurricane intensity change we will need to get continuous low-level observations near the air-sea interface on a regular basis, but manned flights near the surface of the ocean are risky. Remote unmanned aircraft such as the Aerosonde are the only way..."While the successful use of NOAA's WP-3D Orion, its Gulfstream-IV aircraft and the U.S. Air Force Reserve's WC-130H aircraft have been important tools in the arsenal to understand tropical cyclones, detailed observations of the near-surface hurricane environment have been elusive because of the severe safety risks associated with low level manned flight missions. The main objective of the Aerosonde project addresses this significant observational shortcoming by using the unique long endurance and low-flying attributes of the unmanned Aerosonde observing platform, flying at altitudes as low as 500 feet...The Aerosonde platform that flew into Ophelia was specially outfitted with sophisticated instruments used in traditional hurricane observation, including instruments such as mounted Global Position System (GPS) dropwind sondes and a satellite communications system that relayed information on temperature, pressure, humidity and wind speed every half second in real-time. The Aerosonde also carried a downward positioned infrared sensor that was used to estimate the underlying sea surface temperature. All available data were transmitted in near-real time to the NOAA National Hurricane Center and AOML, where the NOAA Hurricane Research Division is located.The environment where the atmosphere meets the sea is critically important in hurricanes as it is where the ocean's warm water energy is directly transferred to the atmosphere just above it. The hurricane/ocean interface also is important because it is where the strongest winds in a hurricane are found and is the level at which most citizens live. Observing and ultimately better understanding this region of the storm is crucial to improve forecasts of hurricane intensity and structure.
Back in '02, I wrote a story for the Times on civilian UAVs. The star of the story: an Aerosonde over the Arctic Circle, monitoring the frozen seas and skies.THERE'S MORE: American spy sats will be watching Rita from above, the AP says. Meanwhile, NASA has transferred control of the International Space Station from Houston to Moscow.(Big ups: UV Online, Sploid)
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