NASA's Global Hawks, for example, were first used to gather data during a limited number of flights in 2010, but researchers are hoping that updated technology and new base closer to Atlantic hurricanes will make the experiments better than ever, said Scott Braun, a NASA investigator who leads the Global Hawk experiments.
The three-year program is just starting, and for now NASA’s plan is focused on basic research, rather than real-time forecasting. Still, with a 116-foot wingspan and an ability to stay in the air for nearly 30 hours, the Global Hawk promises to be extremely useful for observing hurricanes.
“We are still a long ways away from replacing manned flights,” he said. Instead, the UAVs will supplement manned flights by flying at altitudes of up to 60,000 feet, thousands of feet above the thrashing winds and rain. One aircraft is designed to gather data about the environment around a storm, while the other UAV will study the storm itself.
While Global Hawks may soon be a regular fixture above hurricanes, NOAA is experimenting with small, unmanned watercraft to penetrate storms at sea level.
The Wave Glider is a solar- and wave-powered floating platform that can take measurements from both the air and sea. Wave Gliders have been used for a range of weather and climate research, but now NOAA is experimenting with placing the craft in the path of oncoming hurricanes.
Unlike other craft, in theory, the Wave Glider can stay out indefinitely thanks to its solar panels and energy gathered from waves, said NOAA’s Alan Leonardi. “The idea is to position a string of these in the path of a hurricane and gather data in a way we haven’t been able to before,” he said.