2 June 2012
The use of unmanned drones has been a very controversial political issue in recent months, but
NOAA (NASA is funding the experiment) is planning to use them in a very useful (and non-controversial) way. They will be flying a bunch of complex instruments into hurricanes in August and September over the next 3 years. These instrument equipped drones will be able to fly for 30 hours and will drop some specially designed (by NCAR) dropsondes to study the convection in the system very closely. They also will carry doppler lidar which will give much more accurate wind speeds.
This extra information is badly needed by researchers and forecasters, because intensity forecasts of hurricanes are rather lousy. We can predict the track much better than intensity, and with the ever-increasing coastal populations, this can make the difference between mass evacuations (which take days) or minor ones. If you evacuate millions from a coastal area and the storm is a dud, it will not take long for many folks to save the expense and traffic and ride it out at home. Hurricane forecasting is not for the faint hearted!