NASA is using drones to study hurricanes

September 9, 2013
Global Hawk AV-1 (Andrea Peterson/Washington Post)
Global Hawk AV-1 (Andrea Peterson/The Washington Post)

A lot of people are wary of drones watching people, but NASA is using drones to watch the development of major storms in the Atlantic. NASA's HS3 Hurricane Mission looks at how storms are affected by the environments through which they are moving. And according to Principal Investigator Scott Braun, it also examines what is going on inside the storms. The project is studying how processes in a hurricane's eye wall and rain band affect the intensification of a storm. To do that, NASA is using two Global Hawk drones, AV-1 and AV-6. The former is the first Global Hawk ever built.

HS3 is a three-year mission funded under NASA's Earth Venture program that flies out of NASA's Wallops Flight Facility. Last year was the first year of flights, but they only had one aircraft available. This year they have both drones up and running, although they only run one at a time because it takes six pilots in two shifts to keep them in the air for a full flight. Each full flight runs between twenty-two to twenty-six hours depending on which drone they are using and the weight of their payload.

The drones are deployed above the storms and collect data using a variety of tools. One of the tools is a dropsonde, a paper towel roll-sized tube with a parachute and GPS sensors inside that can tell NASA scientists its exact position. "From that," Braun says, "we can determine how it's moving with the wind, which allows us to get the wind speed and wind direction — also some information on vertical motions in the air."

Unfortunately for HS3, but fortunately for people along the coast, there haven't been a lot of major storms to watch in their annual five-week time period this year. And Hurricane Sandy emerged after their observation window last year. But they are sending both drones out this weekend to look at what's left of Hurricane Gabrielle.

Here's what these bad boys look like:

Global Hawk drone AV-1 (Andrea Peterson/Washington Post)
Global Hawk drone AV-1 (Andrea Peterson/The Washington Post)
Global Hawk drone AV-1 (Andrea Peterson/Washington Post)
Global Hawk drone AV-1 (Andrea Peterson/The Washington Post)
Global Hawk drone AV-1 (Andrea Peterson/Washington Post)
Global Hawk drone AV-1 (Andrea Peterson/The Washington Post)
Technician working on Global Hawk drone AV-1 (Andrea Peterson/Washington Post)
Technician working on Global Hawk drone AV-1 (Andrea Peterson/The Washington Post)
Global Hawk drone AV-6 (Andrea Peterson/Washington Post)
Global Hawk drone AV-6 (Andrea Peterson/The Washington Post)
Global Hawk drone AV-6 (Andrea Peterson/Washington Post)
Global Hawk drone AV-6 (Andrea Peterson/The Washington Post)
Global Hawk drone AV-6 (Andrea Peterson/Washington Post)
Global Hawk drone AV-6 behind a super-cool NASA mini-vehicle. (Andrea Peterson/The Washington Post)
HS3 Principal Investigator Scott Braun in front of Global Hawk drone AV-6 (Andrea Peterson/Washington Post)
HS3 Principal Investigator Scott Braun in front of Global Hawk drone AV-6. (Andrea Peterson/The Washington Post)
Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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