Ocean Drones Brave Hurricanes to Make Coastal Communities Safer
In partnership with NOAA, Saildrone will launch five ocean drones to collect in situ scientific data from hurricanes.
Saildrone is announcing a new mission to deploy five uncrewed surface vehicles (USVs) from the US Virgin Islands in August to gather key data throughout the 2021 Tropical Atlantic hurricane season. The USVs will be equipped with specially designed “hurricane wings” to enable them to operate in extreme conditions. Saildrones are the only USVs capable of collecting this data and are designed to withstand winds over 70 mph and waves over 10 feet, which occur during a hurricane weather system. The five saildrones will sail into the paths of hurricanes to provide valuable real-time observations for numerical hurricane prediction models and to collect new insights into how these large and destructive weather cells grow and intensify.
Hurricanes don’t only present a persistent threat to human safety in coastal cities, they also present a significant economic impact—hurricane damage in the US is estimated at around $54 billion annually. Understanding the physical processes of hurricanes is critical to improving forecasts of deadly storms, reducing property damage and loss of human life.
The mission aims to improve understanding and predictability of tropical cyclone intensity changes and advance knowledge of the ocean-atmosphere interactions that fuel them. The saildrones will provide new in situ data to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory (PMEL) and Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory (AOML), Saildrone’s scientific partners in this audacious mission. The data will also be valuable to other groups. These include the National Weather Service, which will use this data to improve forecasting, and the National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service (NESDIS), which will work to align data findings from other observing platforms, such as gliders.
“The biggest gap in our understanding of hurricanes are the processes by which they intensify so quickly, as well as the ability to accurately predict how strong they will become. We know that the exchange of heat between the ocean and the atmosphere is one of the key physical processes providing energy to a storm, but to improve understanding, we need to collect in situ observations during a storm. Of course, that is extremely difficult given the danger of these storms. We hope that data collected with saildrones will help us to improve the model physics, and then, in turn, we will be able to improve hurricane intensity forecasts,” explained Dr. Jun Zhang, a scientist in the Hurricane Research Division at NOAA/AOML.
“The new hurricane wing is a game-changer for the collection of in situ data in the most extreme weather conditions on earth,” said Richard Jenkins, Saildrone founder and CEO. “Saildrone will be able to go where no scientific vessel has ever ventured, right into the eye of the hurricane, and gather data that could make communities around the world safer from these destructive storms.”
The vehicles will transmit meteorological and oceanographic data in real time including air temperature and relative humidity, barometric pressure, wind speed and direction, water temperature and salinity, sea surface temperature, and wave height and duration. The data will also be sent to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO)’s Global Telecommunication System (GTS) and disseminated to all of the major forecast centers—some 20 agencies worldwide, including NOAA.
“PMEL has been working with Saildrone to develop the platform for specific ocean conditions since 2015. Sending a robotic vehicle into the eye of a hurricane, that’s never been done before. It’s an incredibly complex engineering challenge that could have a significant positive impact on our ability to predict extreme weather, for the benefit of communities facing these events,” said Christian Meinig, Director of Engineering at NOAA/PMEL.
This mission is expected to create a foundation for PMEL and AOML to deploy a larger fleet of saildrones as part of a major field campaign for hurricane observations.