There’s a storm coming, Robbie Hood tells the room. It doesn’t have a name yet, but it’s moving eastward over the Pacific Ocean and will probably hit the US this week.
Hood will be the first to know its course: at this very moment, one of her drones is flying right along with it, collecting data on the storm as it advances.
Hood directs the Unmanned Aircraft Systems programme at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), where her team is testing whetherduring severe weather.
Her team’s research got a boost after hurricane Sandy hit the eastern US in 2012, when the US government became interested in developing more accurate and reliable forecasting tools. Drones are a, says Hood, as they can fly and with far less fuel than crewed aircraft – a usual method of tracking storms.
Now NOAA wants to figure out what drones can bring to the table – both in terms of the data they can collect and how much a full-time fleet would cost the agency. That’s where Hood’s team comes in.
To track storms, her team uses the Global Hawk, a military-grade drone that NASA has also experimented with. It can fly for 26 hours at a time, ranging from a NASA facility on the coast of Virginia all the way to the west coast of Africa. “You can watch storms as they’re coming across the Atlantic,” says Hood.
Steampunk vending machine
The drone carries an instrument that looks a little like a steampunk vending machine. This is an “airborne vertical atmospheric profiling system”: it automatically drops canisters out into the storm that, as they plummet, collect data on temperature, humidity, pressure and other characteristics.
Traditionally, a human needs to be on hand to manually throw each of these canisters into the storm. But now, says Hood, someone at NOAA can tell a drone thousands of kilometres away to start dropping them “with the click of a mouse”.
Other instruments on board create 3D maps of wind and precipitation in real time. So far, their results suggest that drone data, combined with other usual data sources, lead to more accurate information about a storm as it is developing than existing methods.
The NOAA team is also investigating other ways to integrate drones into their regular routine. For example, a Global Hawk flies alongside crewed aircraft off Hawaii that are responsible for tracking this year’s historic El Nino. And in the Arctic, smaller drones are helping to map changes in sea ice.
“We’re trying to show how unmanned aircraft systems can fit into the dynamic systems we already have,” says Hood.
Hood presented her team’s work at the annual meeting for the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington DC on Saturday.
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