The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, released information on a growing effort to gather data from “inside” hurricanes. The agency has partnered with a company called Saildrone Inc. and is aiming to improve hurricane forecasts. The goal is to use drones to learn more about exactly what is happening below the storm while it is feeding off the warm ocean waters.

Where are the drones and what will they do?

NOAA announced Wednesday that two new drones have been launched into the Gulf of Mexico this week. One was sent out from the Gulf Coast of Florida and another from Texas. These drones will wait to intercept tropical systems in the Gulf of Mexico. The two launched this week are part of a series of seven that will be used to gather data. The others were launched from the Atlantic side of Florida to monitor Atlantic systems and the U.S. Virgin Islands to monitor the Caribbean.

The drones are produced by a company called Saildrone Inc. and are called uncrewed surface vehicles, USVs for short. The company says their USVs are wind and solar-powered. The drones being used for hurricane data collection are equipped with a special “hurricane wing” that allows them to function in hurricane conditions. The drones were used during the 2021 hurricane season. Here is a video captured in Sept. 2021 from a Saildrone Inc. drone, the first video to come from the ocean surface inside a major hurricane.

The drones will collect data on conditions at the surface and send that data to scientists to analyze. One of the key focal points scientists are examining is the transfer of energy from the ocean and into the atmosphere. To do that, better data is needed on what is going on at the ocean surface under a hurricane. These drones are made to withstand that environment while collecting and sending data without a crew needed onboard to operate them. The USVs are not the only drones that will be used.

A coordinated effort: sea, surface, and air drones to gather data in hurricanes.

In addition to the USVs, NOAA will also be utilizing air drones and will use what it is referring to as “gliders” to gather data from within the ocean water. That data is in addition to data gathered from dropsondes deployed into hurricanes by hurricane hunters and data from buoys spread throughout the oceans.

Instruments being used by NOAA to gather data and improve hurricane forecasting. Credit: NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory

According to NOAA, the underwater gliders will be used to gather information about the ocean environment below the water surface under hurricanes. They will have sensors gathering data about conditions like water temperature and also the salinity, or concentration of salt, of the ocean water. They will sample to depths as deep as a half mile below the surface.

NOAA says they will also be using small uncrewed aircraft systems, or sUAS, to fly into hurricanes. The air drones will work in tandem with the Saildrones to gather data on the atmosphere between the ocean surface and the hurricane clouds above. NOAA Hurricane Hunters will also continue to fly hurricane reconnaissance flights into storms and gather data via instruments on the planes. That includes dropping dropsondes into the storm to gather data as they fall to the surface. Below is an image of a hurricane hunter plane and one of the sUAS drones.

In the background is an NOAA Hurricane Hunter plane, used to fly directly into hurricanes and measure atmospheric conditions within the storm. In the foreground is a drone that will be used to gather data between the ocean surface and the base of the clouds. Credit: NOAA

What do scientists hope to learn from the coordinated data collection effort?

NOAA is hoping this coordinated effort of observations from the water to the sky will paint a vivid snapshot of the atmospheric happenings and the transfer of energy taking place over the water. Hurricanes form over very warm ocean water. Scientists hope to gain a better understanding of the transfer of energy stored in the warm oceans to the storm itself. By sampling the conditions of the water below a storm, the atmosphere between the ocean surface and the storm above, and the conditions in the troposphere simultaneously, scientists hope to create a vivid snapshot of a primed hurricane environment. That knowledge can then be used to improve hurricane forecasting.

Another area of focus is gaining a better understanding of the rapid intensification of hurricanes. According to the National Hurricane Center, rapid intensification is defined as an increase in wind speeds within a hurricane of 35MPH within a 24-hour period. Recent examples of landfalling hurricanes that underwent rapid intensification shortly before making landfall include Hurricane Laura in 2020 and Hurricane Ida in 2021.

Rapid intensification requires extremely warm ocean waters which can often be found close to land. When hurricanes undergo rapid intensification just before landfall, it can have devastating consequences for areas impacted by the eye wall of the landfalling hurricane. Understanding and being able to better predict when rapid intensification occurs can help save lives and property.