How NOAA is using drones to better understand hurricanes

This past hurricane season broke records. It has also been an active and challenging season for meteorologists to forecast. But new technology is being created right now to help better understand the strength and direction of the king of low pressure – the hurricane.

It is a spectacular sight: NOAA hurricane hunters flying through a hurricane then busting past the eyewall into its center. Attached to the aircraft are special weather instruments to collect data, like temperature, dew point, wind velocity, air pressure, to help meteorologists figure out the strength of a tropical cyclone and the direction it is taking.

"We're learning more and more about hurricanes every year. One of the main ways is flying aircraft into hurricanes," NOAA meteorologist Sim Aberson said. "It's what I do."

Aberson is with NOAA's Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory in the Hurricane Research Division in Miami. This year, he couldn't fly due to the pandemic. Even so, the amount of data collected this year is impressive for the dozens of hurricanes that developed in the Atlantic.

"There's lots of places in the hurricane we can't go, especially close to the surface," Aberson said. 

The surface is important, especially the ocean surface because that is what gives energy to the hurricanes. Meteorologists are still trying to understand how the energy from the ocean gets into the atmosphere of the hurricane.

"So we've spent a lot of time over the past few years working on drones, to send drones down there," Aberson said. 

Joseph Cione, the lead meteorologist for NOAA's Hurricane Research Division, explained why drones are used. 

"Manned planes can't do it, too dangerous. And the observing things we have are instantaneous snapshots and it's not enough," Cione said. "It's the low-hanging fruit bread to attack with this technology — just haven't had the technology.

He said that right now NOAA is working with the private sector on three drones with better sensors and longer endurance, and are more cost-effective.

"These drones are going to be able to sample boundary layer and interface between ocean and atmosphere," Cione said. "That's critical because that's sort of a dark zone of understanding and sampling capabilities because we can't get down there that much."

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So right now, the data being collected is like a snapshot, a picture.

"But the drones, we believe, over time, especially when we get multiple up at one time, we can have a movie," Cione said. 

In the last 30 years, NOAA and several other agencies have made continual advancements towards tracking where the storm is heading and where it will end up, Cione said.

But we are not quite there with determining how strong storms are going to get, which he believes will be changing in the near future.

"I see in the next 10 years an acceleration of our ability to see how strong these storms are going to be that is a huge help, forecast help, and ability for emergency managers on evacuating or not," Cione said, "It will protect property and save lives in the long run like we've never seen before."