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Scientists drove a robotic surfboard into Hurricane Sam, and the waves were incredible

It was the first-ever ocean drone to intercept a major hurricane, battling 50-foot waves and winds gusting higher than 120 mph

A saildrone on Sept. 30 captured footage inside Hurricane Sam, the first video footage gathered by an uncrewed surface vehicle from inside a major hurricane. (Video: Saildrone Inc./NOAA)

Scientists with Saildrone and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration managed to drive a robotic surfboard into the core of Category 4 Hurricane Sam on Thursday, in a first-of-its-kind scientific mission as they try to better understand hurricanes.

The video, captured just northeast of Hurricane Sam’s monstrous eye, depicts eerily dark skies, screaming winds and a thick veil of sea spray and mist lofted into the air. Enormous waves can be seen swinging the probe like a pendulum.

Saildrone is a company that manufactures probes that collect ocean data for use in environmental studies. Saildrones come in three different sizes, and can be fitted with devices to measure weather and ocean conditions, map the seafloor and even track “biomass,” or fish and other organisms, that live in the waters.

From June: Scientists hope to steer robotic surfboards into hurricanes

In June, the company announced a plan to retrofit five of its medium-size “Explorer” units with specialized “hurricane wings” that would allow them to penetrate the fiercest storms. Conventional Saildrone probes have mast-like wings on which scientific instruments can be mounted, but those units were able to withstand winds only up to 60 mph. The new hurricane probes, which are 23 feet long, are designed to glide between waves in storm winds topping 115 mph.

The smaller, more durable wings were also made to survive being “buried” by large, breaking waves and being tumbled in chaotic currents.

Leading up to the hurricane season, Saildrone deployed the five uncrewed vessels in hopes of getting measurements as close as possible to the center of hurricanes. They were positioned in the Atlantic’s “hurricane belt,” or Main Development Region, in the hope that one or more would experience close encounters with storms. The units can travel under their own power at 1 to 2 mph. Meteorologists at NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory near Miami offered advice on where they should be deployed.

Three units were initially launched this summer from the Caribbean and U.S. Virgin Islands, and two from the shores of Florida.

Saildrone United 1045 happened to be in the best position to intercept Sam, which was a Category 4 hurricane with winds of 145 mph early Thursday afternoon. Wave heights were reported at more than 50 feet.

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“Saildrone is going where no research vessel has ever ventured, sailing right into the eye of the hurricane, gathering data that will transform our understanding of these powerful storms,” said Richard Jenkins, Saildrone’s founder and chief executive, in a news release Thursday. The company is working to learn more about the link between the ocean and atmosphere, and the exchange of heat energy and chemical compounds between the two.

Saildrone units have been used to study the infamously hostile Arctic Ocean and Southern (or Antarctic) Ocean. Jenkins described hurricanes as the “last frontier for Saildrone survivability.”

Greg Foltz, a scientist at NOAA, said he hopes the data collected by Saildrone can offer insight into the dynamics of rapid hurricane intensification, which occurs when a storm strengthens by 35 mph or more within 24 hours. Rapidly intensifying storms pose a grave hazard to coastal communities and are particularly challenging to forecast. Scientists see a link between human-induced climate change and the propensity for storms to intensify rapidly.

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The role of sea spray, which was visible in the video, in intensifying storms is also poorly understood. That’s yet another aspect of storm dynamics that Saildrone will help scientists to examine.

NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory and Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory will be reviewing the data in the months ahead, drawing conclusions from the project’s findings. In the meantime, Saildrone unit 1045 will continue its intrepid mission near the center of the strongest storm on Earth.