Pilotless Aircraft Flies Toward Eye of Hurricane for First Time

(NOAA) A pilotless hurricane hunter is being flown by remote control into hurricane force winds for the first time to give researchers from NOAA and NASA a real time, low altitude look at a storm with hurricane category 1 winds hovering around 80 miles per hour.

Even though the internal structure of Hurricane Noel may change from a warm to a cold core and lose its defined eye and hurricane status, the winds will remain at hurricane force power and test the mettle of the aircraft’s sensors and data delivery capabilities.

The five-foot-long aircraft with a wing span of 10 feet was launched at 2:08 p.m. today from Wallops Island, Va., and is expected to penetrate the hurricane eyewall or storm center at 10 p.m. tonight during its anticipated 20-hour-long mission.

”Unmanned flights at very low altitude are important since they give us unique insights and continuous observations in a region of the storm where the ocean’s energy is directly transferred to the atmosphere just above. Attempting this type of research flight with our hurricane hunter aircraft would risk the lives of our crew and scientists,” said Joe Cione, hurricane researcher at NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory in Miami, and project manager for the Aerosonde field study. Cione will monitor the Aerosonde’s progress from NOAA’s National Hurricane Center in Miami.

NOAA hurricane researchers are leading the collaborative effort to test the ability of using a remotely controlled unmanned aircraft system, or UAS, to fly into the eyewall of a hurricane at altitudes as low as 500 feet. Scientists hope using unmanned aircraft will help fill a gap in near-surface data. The data have been hard to gather because of the safety risks of low-level flight.

In future missions, a second Aerosonde may be launched as the first aircraft returns. This would result in longer continuous storm coverage. Once in the storm, up-to-the-minute command and control of the UAS will occur at NOAA’s National Hurricane Center.

NOAA scientists are coordinating the Aerosonde flight to coincide with a manned NOAA Hurricane Hunter WP-3D mission as well, providing a volume of data on Hurricane Noel from top to bottom. This level of information saturation is valuable to researchers, providing a more complete picture of storm structure and strength that becomes a valuable tool for forecasters.

In September 2005, the Aerosonde was flown from the NASA Wallops Flight Facility into Tropical Storm Ophelia on a 10-hour mission sending back data from readings that were taken and relayed every half-second as the storm moved off North Carolina's Outer Banks and past the Virginia coast.

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