A new hurricane ‘helper’

Meet the new Ocean Drone

HOUSTON – Hurricane season is now upon us and with an above normal number of storms forecasted by everyone, we can use all the information we can get about approaching storms.

We talk about the models a lot and it’s important to know that the models are only as good as the data that goes into them --”baloney in, baloney out.” So as much accurate, real-time data we collect, the more the models have to calculate and the better their forecast.

You know about the hurricane hunters, of course, who fly directly into the storms dropping small weather computers (dropsondes) that sample the atmosphere as they fall to the ocean surface. This gives us terrific data about what is happening with the storm. Other hurricane hunters fly up, over and around the tropical system to sample the surrounding atmosphere and provide data. Even drones the past few years have flown directly into hurricanes which is especially handy when they are far away and it’s impractical for humans to fly to them.

This year, there is a new kid in town. The Saildrone USV:

The Saildrone 'dry docked'

Saildrone is the manufacturing company for these beauties and USV stands for Uncrewed Surface Vehicle, which -- just like flying drones -- means there is no risk to human life. And they sail right into the eye of approaching tropical storms and hurricanes. There are five of these USV’s being deployed this year and the data they collect will be sent right back to NOAA and other forecasting agencies.

More data! The vehicles will transmit meteorological and oceanographic data in real-time including air temperature and relative humidity, barometric pressure, wind speed and direction, water temperature and salinity, sea surface temperature, and wave height and duration. In addition, they are powered by solar and wind energy, thereby leaving a minimal carbon footprint. How cool is that?

The real importance

Gathering this data at the surface will be extremely helpful in tropical storm forecasting, but for what exactly? Intensity changes. Very often a forecasted storm is expected to only remain a storm or small hurricane when suddenly the storm intensifies to a stronger system than we thought it would. Harvey, for instance.

“We know that the exchange of heat between the ocean and the atmosphere is one of the key physical processes providing energy to a storm, but to improve understanding, we need to collect in situ observations during a storm. Of course, that is extremely difficult given the danger of these storms. We hope that data collected with Saildrones will help us to improve the model physics, and then, in turn, we will be able to improve hurricane intensity forecasts,” explained Dr. Jun Zhang, a scientist in the Hurricane Research Division at NOAA/AOML.

Saildrones will collect data right at the ocean surface.

Hopefully, this will be the beginning of an entire fleet of Saildrones to help our hurricane forecasting.

And, not to drone on about this, but tonight is our 2021 Hurricane and Flood Survival Guide on KPRC2 at 7 p.m. We’re showing a half-hour of excellent information to help get you and your family ready for whatever comes our way! If you can’t watch, at least record!


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About the Authors:

KPRC 2's chief meteorologist with four decades of experience forecasting Houston's weather.

Amanda Cochran is an Edward R. Murrow award-winning journalist. She specializes in Texas features, consumer and business news and local crime coverage.