Meet Sail-Drone, a new tool in hurricane forecasting

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – This hurricane season, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) added a new tool to their arsenal to gather data that will help predict the intensity of tropical storms and hurricanes.

Meet “SailDrone”, an unmanned surface vehicle equipped with a “hurricane wing” sail that will allow it to sail right into the eye of a hurricane.

On September 30, Saildrone Explorer SD-1045, one of five in a new fleet of SailDrones, brought us pictures of something that no one had ever seen before: the surface of the ocean in a Category 4 hurricane when it sailed into the eyewall of Hurricane Sam.

The SailDrone battled 50-foot waves and winds of over 120 mph to collect critical weather and sea-surface data and, in the process, gave us a completely new view of one of Earth’s most destructive forces.

Dr. Greg Foltz, NOAA Oceanographer and lead scientist on the SailDrone Mission, explained the significance of this data.

“We have eleven different scientific sensors on the SailDrone,” Foltz explained. “So, we’re recording really a wealth of data from the atmosphere and ocean, and all of this data is transmitted back to us immediately as it is collected through satellite communications.”

“They measure from the atmosphere and into the oceans, at the air-sea interface,” Foltz pointed out. “And that gives us critical information that allows us to quantify these important processes that lead to hurricane intensification and rapid intensification, and this can lead to improved forecast models and improved predictions of hurricane intensity.”

This can also lead to better forecasts of “rapid intensification” of hurricanes, a key goal for forecasters.

A case in point: Hurricane Michael in 2017 intensified from a 110 mph Category 2 storm to a monstrous 160 mph Category 5 in the 24 hours before making landfall in the Florida Panhandle.

This summer, NOAA deployed a fleet of five hurricane sail drones that have been operating in the Atlantic Ocean during hurricane season.

The hope is that real-time sea-surface data from this new tool, coupled with the data collected aloft by the hurricane hunters aircraft, will improve hurricane forecasts and help save lives.

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