NASA Drones Fly Into Hurricane Hermine to Improve Forecast

The drones provide time-lapse videos and information often unnoticed by meteorologists

With Hermine bearing down on the United States, new, high-flying technology is providing critical information to those in the storm’s path.

On Thursday, an unmanned drone flew through Hermine, sampling the storm and measuring its every move. Earlier this week, another drone flew into what’s now Hermine as well, and video provided by NOAA and NASA shows that Global Hawk Unmanned Aircraft landing in Virginia after its mission.

Time-lapse videos, also provided by NASA, show the view from the unmanned plane as it zig zags through the storm, measuring things like wind speed and air pressure.

“The benefit of this aircraft is, because it flies so high — it flies at 60,000 feet which is well above the top of the storm. And it’s carrying sensors that can look down through the storm so it’s just like doing an X-ray of that storm,” said Robbie Hood, director of NOAA's Unmanned Aircraft Systems program.

Hurricane Hunters have flown through storms for decades, and still do. But after Sandy, the federal government funded these drones to collect even more information.

“A Global Hawk can fly much farther and stay in the air much longer than a traditional manned aircraft, so it can actually stay with the storm for 16-20 hours. Our normal manned aircraft is 8-12 hours,” Hood said.

The drones provide key information that can make forecasts better.

On Tuesday, a Global Hawk with a 40-meter wingspan dropped a record 90 instruments while investigating two tropical depressions, one off the Carolinas and the one that became Hermine, according to a NOAA news release. The flight took nearly 24 hours, and helped track the two storms. 

On Saturday, one of the drones sampled Gaston in the middle of the Atlantic, dropping more than 80 instruments into the storm. It detected hurricane-force winds that otherwise would have gone unnoticed by meteorologists — another flight marked the first time that data gathered by the NASA Global Hawk was used to upgrade a storm from tropical storm to hurricane.

“We’re always looking at how can we improve our forecast and expand the warning time that people have to prepare for dangerous storms,” Hood said.

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