The Air Force has been sending somewhat rational people in powered aluminum tubes straight into hurricanes since 1943 and these brave souls are starting to get help from unmanned aerial systems. Some folks wonder whether the Hurricane Hunter flights are much more than great publicity for the Air Force.
As someone who lived in southern Florida, lost his apartment to Hurricane Andrew and covered two other hurricanes I can assure you they are. Satellites and buoys gather important data that help fill out the picture on hurricanes but the Hurricane Hunters provide the information that makes the difference. Their data increases the accuracy of hurricane forecasts by roughly 30 percent.
Imagine what cued UAVs could do, with their long linger time and ability to be loaded with sophisticated instruments to improve that. So I asked the head weather recon officer of the Hurricane Hunters, Air Force Lt. Col. Jon Talbot, about UAVs (or UAS or whatever we're calling them these days) whether their time has come. Bottom line, not yet. They possess excellent linger time and can fly lower than manned aircraft inside the storm, but the ones being used so far can't muster enough speed or range to regularly provide additional data on hurricanes.
"I think we are still many years away," Talbot said Friday morning. So far, an AAI Corp.-made drone called the Aerosonde has penetrated at least one hurricane, Noel. But the plane is small and lacks power, speed and range.
For example, the Aerosonde flies at only about 60 knots, Talbot said, not enough to get the plane to a distant with any speed. "We are very interested to see if it can get into a major hurricane. The problem is it flies so slow that it has trouble getting into the hurricane," he explained. Talbot said the UAV "never got instruments into hurricane force winds" though it did make it to the hurricane after 15 hours. "Unfortunately, it's not a timely instrument yet," he said.
Also, its flight path is automated so the plane can't be steered or reprogrammed to check out particularly interesting features of a storm. However, the Aerosonde can fly for as much as 24 hours so it can gather useful data in the right conditions.
Of course, there are much more substantial UAVs out there - Predator and Global Hawk among them -- possessing greater speed and capabilities. And Talbot and NOAA are bullish on UAVs for the longer term. NOAA has a paltry $3 million in this year's budget for UAVs but is planning to ramp that up to $30 million in the next few years.
Also, NASA is discussing cooperation with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to use two Global Hawks for hurricane research, according to Randy Albertson, NASA's deputy director of airborne science. On top of that, NASA is working with Northrop Grumman to arrange for development of a base station for the Global Hawks, which did not come with one.
One interesting tidbit about all this is that the Global Hawks would probably be flown into and around a hurricane with other research planes such as NOAA's specially equipped P-3s, NASA's own ER-2s (which are actually U-2s built without all the fancy military stuff) and a DC-8 NASA owns.These wouldn't gather data in a manner that would easily allow the National Weather Service to make use of it in real time but the data would be available to anyone who wanted to crunch it. The earliest date for this, Albertson said, would be the 2010 hurricane season.
When NOAA gets its own Global Hawks, Talbot will probably be rattling around in his WC-130J flying down through the hurricane wall into the eye for the data and analysis only a human being can provide using sophisticated technology and their own eyes and brains while the UAV lingers for hours gathering and feeding information to the National Weather Service.