The Buoys: As Fiona Blows Up, Sail Drone Tracks from Within

September 23, 2022

Incredible footage.

Yale Climate Connections:

NOAA oceanographer Greg Foltz knew it was going to be a long night last fall when he saw Hurricane Sam‘s trajectory. Glued to the National Hurricane Center data, Foltz, who works in NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory in Miami, examined the storm’s tracking and intensity and conducted an analysis of the satellite images and data.

He needed to estimate the hurricane’s trajectory over the next 12-24 hours so he could position his instruments. He wasn’t trying to pull his costly equipment away from the hurricane’s path, though. In fact, he was doing the opposite. He wanted to position an uncrewed surface vehicle (USV) called a Saildrone right in the path of the storm. A direct hit by the ferocious Category 4 storm was just what he was looking for.

As he closely monitored the storm, Foltz sent messages to Saildrone’s “mission control” when he wanted to change the vehicle’s path. For example, if he thought the storm would veer a little further to the west, he would send the team a new waypoint to adjust it.

“It was a constant back and forth adjusting the location that we wanted the Saildrone to be in to go through the strongest part of the storm,” Foltz says. “I was directing in real time where to take the Saildrone to get it in the best spot to go through the strongest part of the hurricane, and that was exciting. I didn’t really sleep at all the night before as I was trying to get it into the right position.”

Equipped with a “hurricane wing,” the Saildrone could be remotely controlled, with scientists adjusting the sail from afar in order to steer the craft. The hurricane Saildrones differ from some of the company’s other products, which are used for projects like ocean mapping, ocean data collection, and maritime domain awareness,

“It’s that difference of a smaller, stubbier, hardier wing that we use with the hurricane drones to help improve their endurance and capability to survive during some of the very rough weather they may find themselves in during hurricane season,” says Matt Womble, Director of Ocean Data Programs for Saildrone, Inc.

As Hurricane Sam’s powerful Category 4 winds and monster waves battered the USV, the team waited and watched. Live data and video footage rolled in, allowing them a peek into the storm’s fury. After the weather calmed, they were able to steer it to Bermuda to retrieve it, mostly unscathed.

Expanding Hurricane Saildrone project this hurricane season

After last year’s successful mission, NOAA and Saildrone are expanding the project this year by adding two additional Saildrones, for a total of seven. Hurricane season runs from June to November, and this year two drones are positioned in the Gulf of Mexico and five others are in the Atlantic and Caribbean. The researchers deploy them to locations where they think there is a good chance a storm will develop. Last year, the Saildrones collected data about Hurricane Sam, in addition to four tropical storms, as well as a few weaker tropical depressions and storms.

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