There once was a drone that put to ease, questions of hurricane conditions at seas.
Sam’s wind churned up, and its wave dipped down, and scientists got to show.
Soon, then, the internet saw, Sam’s winds and waves tall, strong and raw.
One day, when they learn the cause, the drone will come back home.
Just like the sea shanty, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration went viral this month when it posted a video of Hurricane Sam’s 50-foot sea-surface waves — a visual never before captured by an unmanned vessel.
The video was the first of its kind for the NOAA, as it was gathered by a solar-powered, ocean mapping saildrone, known specifically as Explorer SD 1045.
While the video is pretty cool, NOAA scientists are way more excited about what the 23-foot-long drone (1,500 pounds) was able to do — journey into and out of a Category 4 hurricane, intact.
“The videos are great, but we’ve never had a manned drone pass through the eyewall of a hurricane twice. That’s a first,” said Greg Foltz, a NOAA scientist who worked on the project. “We watched its journey in real time and I just kept thinking, ‘When is it going to stop? When is it going to break? When is there going to be a problem with data transmission?’ This thing had to contend with sea spray, dense clouds and heavy rain, sending data up to a satellite and back to us. And it did it perfectly. Nobody expected that.”
SD 1045 embarked Sept. 30 from Jacksonville into the Atlantic, where it waited for an opportune storm. That’s when came Sam. The storm’s arrival was perfect timing for the saildrone, which was strategically placed in an area of the Atlantic where scientists deduced it would have a high probability of encountering a hurricane, said Brian Connon, vice president of Ocean Mapping at Saildrone Inc.
“It was truly one of the few times I can honestly say, we were the first to do something,” Connon said. “We were able to provide high resolution video, collect meteorological data from inside a hurricane, and safely get [the drone out.] ”
Saildrone, Inc., and the NOAA were selective of where it would place drones before a storm because they only reach a top speed of about 1.15 mph. So the team positioned five saildrones in calculated areas where they were bound to come across storms; including three in the Caribbean and one on either side of the Gulf Stream.
SD 1045, was piloted by Saildrone, Inc. team members, and directed by the NOAA to gather information on Sam. What makes SD 1045′s journey into the heart of Sam so important is its ability to provide a glimpse into the storm scientists couldn’t otherwise get, Connon said.
Satellites are incapable of showing scientists the complete, complex mosaic of a hurricane. Hurricane hunter recon missions help fill out the picture with storm passthroughs, but even they have to leave behind dropsondes to send real-time information to computer models, predicting a storm’s path and strength. That comes with a human risk.
However, saildrones keep people out of danger and gather vital information to perfect storm model predictions, Foltz said. Keeping the saildrones out of harms way in the torrential waves and strong is a built-in balancing system known as a “hurricane wing” allowing the drone to cut through water in between waves over 10 feet and winds over 70 mph.
So what did scientists learn from SD 1045?
“Well, we confirmed we don’t want people on ships anywhere near there,” Connon said and laughed. “When people ask what did we learn, all I can say is we don’t know yet.”
That’s because SD 1045 and the other drones are still at sea, awaiting to capture more storm data should any form nearby. When hurricane season comes to a close Nov. 30, the team will recover the drones and download the collected data, hopefully learning the answers to questions circulating around hurricanes, such as rapid intensification.
In 2018, Hurricane Michael rapidly intensified into a Category 5 hurricane three days before making landfall on Florida’s panhandle. This was mostly due to the warm sea-surface temperatures that lay on Michael’s path. But scientists didn’t have tools to tell them Michael’s surge in power ahead of time.
What makes understanding rapid intensification especially challenging is that it only occurs about 5% of the time, Folz said. Studying the process takes a degree of luck, but understanding it is crucial to saving lives.
“We need to understand the process to improve the computer models. We believe hurricanes are drawing huge energy from the ocean, so getting measurements from the saildrone is crucial for our understanding,” he said.
As for the future of saildrones, their ability to supply data, safely in and out of a hurricane may encourage the use of more drones, Connon.
“That’s our hope,” he said. “I live in the Louisiana area, and we’ve had our share of storms. With storms like Katrina and Michael, understanding rapid intensification is pretty important to forecasting. Hopefully, we see more saildrones in the Gulf. But there are parts of the U.S. that experience even stronger storms, in the western Pacific, maybe we could even send a few into super typhoons, as well.”