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Unmanned drones to probe hurricanes

Aerial drones resembling orange needle-nosed giant model airplanes may become an important tool in hurricane observation.

Unmanned aircraft are key weapons in high-tech warfare and the war on terrorism. Now, aerial drones resembling orange needle-nosed giant model airplanes may also become an important tool in hurricane observation.

The five Aerosonde aircraft, each weighing 33 pounds and 5 feet long with a 10-foot wing span, are being deployed through Sept. 30 at U.S. Naval Air Station Key West.

The aircraft, which will measure a storm’s atmospheric boundary layer, fly as low as 500 feet  and up to 2,000 feet above the ocean’s surface.

The environment where the atmosphere meets the sea is critical in hurricanes, as the ocean’s warm-water energy is transferred directly to the atmosphere above it.

“We’re looking to penetrate hurricanes at lower levels. This region is where the energy is extracted from the ocean,” said Joe Cione, the project’s lead scientist and a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research meteorologist.

“It’s impossible for a manned aircraft to fly at these levels,” Cione said.

The drones, showcased during a media tour of the Naval Air Station this week, can operate within a 100- to 500-nautical-mile radius from their departure point.

The Florida Keys are “an area in the middle of the action” for potential hurricanes that can be fueled from warm waters in the Atlantic Ocean, through the Florida Straits and into the Gulf of Mexico, said Peter Turlington, NASA project manager. “It’s a ripe area to sample important storms.”

The drones will be launched if a hurricane approaches within a 500-nautical-mile radius of Boca Chica Key, home to the Navy station and just northeast of Key West at the southern tip of the Florida Keys.

An aircraft would be launched atop an automobile, traveling at 55 mph, before a hurricane evacuation is ordered. On the Florida mainland, the National Hurricane Center in Miami would monitor real-time data.

The so-called “loitering technique’ allows the aircraft to be in a storm when rapid intensification occurs, helping scientists better predict a hurricane’s intensity.

Two mounted Global Position Systems provide measurements of wind speed, temperature, air pressure and humidity every half-second. The aircraft are owned and operated by AAI Corp., headquartered in Hunt Valley, Maryland.

The six-month Atlantic hurricane season that began on June 1 has produced only one hurricane so far. Tropical Storm Ernesto briefly reached hurricane strength near Haiti last month but weakened before drenching the U.S. East Coast.