UAVs in the eye of hurricanes

NASA is operating several small unmanned autonomous vehicles in Florida to watch hurricanes. The Aerosonde measures the temperature, pressure, humidity and wind velocity. This $50,000 aircraft can be launched from the top of a car, can fly for 18 hours, weighs about 12 kilograms and is remotely controlled via a simple PC.

It's not the first time that small unmanned autonomous vehicles (UAVs) are used to explore dangerous areas for humans such as the hurricane surface layer. But in Tiny uncrewed aircraft to fly into hurricanes, New Scientist reports that NASA is operating several of these aircrafts from Key West, Florida, for a whole month. The Aerosonde will measure the temperature, pressure, humidity and wind velocity inside storms over the Ocean. This $50,000 aircraft can be launched from the top of a car, can fly for 18 hours, weighs about 12 kilograms and is remotely controlled via a simple PC. But read more...

Here is the introduction from New Scientist.

[The UAV] will make the measurements when the hurricane is over the sea, where it builds in intensity. A hurricane is a giant heat engine, powered by the evaporation of warm seawater that then condenses inside the storm to release energy.
Unfortunately, understanding that process requires flying instruments a few hundred metres above the ocean, where wind speeds are highest. "It's far too dangerous to get there with manned aircraft," says Joe Cione of NOAA's National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida, US.

This is why NOAA (the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association) and NASA currently rely on satellites to monitor hurricanes.

Now, the agencies hope to shed light on this question by taking much longer observations with aerosondes developed by the Aerosonde Corporation of Wallops Island, Virginia, US. The $50,000 aircraft are launched from a rack on top of a small truck and can carry instrument packages that weigh just a couple of kilograms.
But they can fly for 18 hours at a time at altitudes of 150 to 600 metres. Plans call for them to transmit data in real time as they spiral inwards to the eye of the storm, then retrace their path back out again. By flying two aerosondes in succession, Cione hopes to monitor the transfer of energy from the ocean to the storm for 36 hours.

Below is a photograph of an Aerosonde mounted on a small car and ready for launch (Credit: Aerosonde). This picture was taken during the June 2005 campaign to watch the Baiu Front over the west of Kyushu for the the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA). Here is a link to this Baiu Hunter 2005 campaign.

Aerosonde ready for launch

And below is a digital image of the Aerosonde in the eye of a storm (Credit: Jon Becker, Aerosonde Pty Ltd.).

Aerosonde in the eye of a storm

For more information about this mission which sent an Aerosonde into Hurricane Ophelia in 2005, you can read NASA, NOAA and Aerosonde Team Up on Hurricane Observation Milestone (on NASA web site) or Aerosonde first UAV to Recce a Tropical Cyclone (on Aerosonde web site).

For its 2005 mission inside Hurricane Ophelia, NASA adds that "the Aerosonde platform that flew into Ophelia was specially outfitted with sophisticated instruments used in traditional hurricane observations, including instruments such as mounted Global Position System (GPS) dropwindsonde 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 an infrared sensor that was used to estimate the underlying sea surface temperature."

Finally, if you want to see more images of the Aerosonde, you can visit this gallery or check all the operations it was used for since 1998 when it was the first UAV to cross the Atlantic Ocean in about 32 hours.

Sources: Jeff Hecht, New Scientist, September 12, 2006; and various web site

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