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Tiny aircraft could improve hurricane forecasts

The 3-foot, 8-pound unmanned GALE drone will be flown into hurricanes next year, feeding wind speeds and other data into computer models that project a storm's track and strength.

September 30, 2011|By Ken Kaye, Sun Sentinel
  • NOAA's $30,000 hurricane drone is made of hard composites and powered by an electronic motor.
NOAA's $30,000 hurricane drone is made of hard composites and powered… (NOAA )

Reporting from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. — It's 3 feet long, weighs 8 pounds and looks a bit like a plastic airplane model. But by next year it will be flying into the eye of a hurricane, bucking incredibly violent winds and maneuvering within 100 feet of the ocean's surface.

Its primary mission: to help the National Hurricane Center improve intensity predictions, an area where forecasters have lagged for decades. It also will help improve the accuracy of real-time storm predictions.

Called GALE, the unmanned aircraft will be launched from the belly of a hurricane hunter turboprop, initially shot out of a tube as a cylinder. Then it will sprout wings and fly into the core of a hurricane, where it will feed wind speeds and other atmospheric data into computer models that project a storm's track and strength.

"It gives us a better understanding of how the ocean is interacting with the atmosphere," said Joe Cione, project leader with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "Right now, the models are guessing at what's going on down there."

The $30,000 drone, the latest weapon in NOAA's hurricane-forecast arsenal, is made of hard composites and powered by an electronic motor. It cruises about 55 mph and can stay aloft for about 1.5 hours before falling into the ocean, never to be used again.

The first one will be flight-tested in coming weeks; then two will be flown into separate hurricanes next year. Pilots based on the ground will control them via satellite link, Cione said.

NOAA is undertaking the project in partnership with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach.

Considering the plane is so light and hurricane winds are so strong, how is it able to fly without getting tossed asunder?

Initially, it will be dropped into the eye of a hurricane, where the winds are usually calm, said Massood Towhidnejad, a professor of software engineering at Embry-Riddle. It will remain there collecting data until it is almost out of power. Then it will be directed into the hurricane's eye wall, where the winds are tumultuous.

At that point, the tiny plane will become uncontrollable, Towhidnejad said.

"We're basically hoping this thing will last as long as it can," he said. "The wind forces will take over and cause it to rotate. But that's exactly what we want."

That violent rotation, he said, will become another means to determine a storm's strength and structure.

It won't be the first time a drone has investigated tropical systems. A similarly small plane, called an aerosonde, was first flown in September 2005 into Hurricane Ophelia as it was threatening North Carolina.

More recently, a Global Hawk turbine-powered aircraft, designed to stay aloft more than 30 hours at high altitude, was deployed into some of last year's storms.

The major benefit of using unmanned aircraft: They can fly into places too dangerous for hurricane hunters and other research planes.

kkaye@tribune.com

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