Drones navigate the Caribbean and the Atlantic to better understand storms


They almost look like a cross between a sailboat and a surfboard, but this craft is designed for work, not play.

NEW ORLEANS – New technology designed to help meteorologists better understand and predict hurricanes (sailing drones) are being used in the Atlantic and the Caribbean to help the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration better understand how storms develop and intensify rapidly.

They almost look like a cross between a sailboat and a surfboard, but sailing drones aren’t used for recreation. Their goal is to chase hurricanes to give forecasters more data of the ocean surface.

“It’s a very economical solution for collecting scientific data,” said Brain Connon, vice president of ocean mapping at Saildrone.

Connon said the drones collect real-time data, including air and sea surface temperatures, relative humidity and wave heights – important information all gathered without risking human life.

“We tell the drone where to go via satellite communications, and it sails there – and hopefully it gets hit by a hurricane,” Connon said.

Where in-flight hurricane hunters collect important information, sea level data is more difficult to obtain.

“Hurricane chasers do a great job of locating the eye, giving us those wind speeds, the same with satellite imagery,” Cannon said. “But we still don’t really understand the physics of what’s going on between the ocean and the hurricane itself.”

Chris Franklin, WWLTV’s local weather expert and chief meteorologist, said this surface data would also help predict whether a storm would intensify quickly.

“If you get this more comprehensive data on the storm surface, you will get this data in real time, and you will be able to see in real time that a storm is indeed intensifying rapidly,” Franklin said. “As this more complete data is entered into computer models, the computer models must then previously be accurate with their predictions.”

Powered by sunlight or wind, drones can withstand hurricane-force winds and 10-foot waves, and they can travel up to 80 miles per day.

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