The Global Hawk drone will give scientists more information on how storms strengthen, by taking closer and longer looks at storms' eyewalls.
BY JIM WAYMER | FLORIDA TODAY | June 29, 2009
Predator drones piloted from laptops track al-Qaida in the Middle East and illegal border crossings from Canada and Mexico.
In the middle of the Atlantic, they will hunt hurricanes -- maybe leading to the end of manned reconnaissance flights, or at least the most dangerous ones.
One drone can jet high above a hurricane to scan a storm's origins. Another propels along a cyclone's tail, deep into the eyewall, within a few hundred feet of the ocean surface. Their instruments peer through clouds and sandstorms. They send photos and real-time video.
This new breed of hurricane hunters targets the Holy Grail in hurricane forecasting: better prediction of how storms quickly strengthen. The closer, longer glimpses of a storm's beginnings and eyewall could one day save lives and property.
"We can stay aloft longer," said Ramesh Kakar, a program scientist at NASA in Washington, D.C. "That's a big difference between a drone and a manned aircraft. You're limited by the pilot fatigue."
NASA plans a test flight in September of the Global Hawk predator drone, with hopes of having it ready for next year's hurricane season.
"It's just like having your own little roving satellite," said Robbie Hood, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Unmanned Aircraft Systems program in Boulder, Colo. "It would be like parking a satellite above the storm."
The Global Hawk cruises at 400 mph and can reach 65,000 feet with up to 2,000 pounds of weather instruments.
Last year, the Air Force transferred two Global Hawks to NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in California. For now, the drones will deploy from there.
But Kakar hopes to make the drone available at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia next year.
To focus resources on the Global Hawk, the federal government this year scrubbed flights of a much smaller hurricane drone that gathers near-ocean data, which forecasters say is vital for improving storm-intensity predictions.