How has NOAA been using drones in hurricane research?
We flew the first unmanned aircraft system, the Aerosonde, into tropical storm Ophelia in 2005. It was land-launched and spent most of the time flying to the storm and just a little time in the storm. We flew that same platform again in 2007 into Hurricane Noel. In 2008, I ran into some Navy people who were using the Coyote drone for sub-hunting. They said it’s only 13 pounds, a five-foot wingspan, battery-powered, but you could take it to the storm with the P3 Hurricane Hunter plane.

We did a clear-air test with it in the Gulf of Mexico in 2009, but we couldn’t get any funding until after Hurricane Sandy. We had five Coyotes built in early 2014. We flew two missions from Bermuda during Hurricane Edouard in September 2014: one into the eye of the storm and one into the very violent winds in the eye wall. Both flights were successful. We’re still looking at the data.

What’s the plan for this hurricane season?
We will have up to four Coyote aircraft to fly. We plan to use the P3 as a launching vehicle, and we’ll probably target hurricane-strength storms. We want to get the Coyotes extremely low, 100 or 200 meters, into the boundary layer, the interface between the ocean surface and the atmosphere.

What’s the advantage of the drones?
This platform is unique. We can’t get the data any other way. We can spend a long amount of time at low altitudes where the energy is sucked out of the ocean. That’s where we all live. We want to document what’s happening there and send this data, this movie, directly to the hurricane center. This platform won’t tell us where the hurricane is going to go, but it will tell us how strong it is. We can get a better idea of what’s happening, what we call a “nowcast,” which could improve evacuation planning. Once our understanding improves, enhanced computer models can more accurately predict the intensity of these systems.

What are the benefits for forecasting and modeling?
The computer models are only as good as the assumptions they use. By using platforms like the Coyote, we expect to improve our understanding of how hurricanes work, which should lead to better models and better forecasts down the road. For instance in the future, use of data like this could be instrumental in determining if a storm is going to significantly intensify or not before landfall. Our ultimate goal for using this technology is to help save lives and protect property.

What happens to the drones?
Right now, they’re all expendable. Our mission doesn’t lend itself to recovery. No boat wants to be out in 60- to 70-foot waves.