As hurricane season approaches each summer, coastal communities on the US Atlantic seaboard brace for impact. These fast-moving and often deadly storms aren’t only a persistent threat to human safety, they also present a significant economic impact—hurricane damage in the US is estimated at around $54 billion annually.
The biggest challenge to hurricane forecasting is rapid intensification, which can have a huge impact if a storm intensifies just before landfall. Scientists need to understand the ocean processes that are occurring as intensity increases, which means collecting data immediately before and during a hurricane. This summer, Saildrone will sail five uncrewed surface vehicles (USVs) into the eye of the storm.
Saildrone USVs are highly maneuverable, wind and solar-powered vehicles designed for long-range data collection missions. Saildrone USVs are the only autonomous vehicle that can collect meteorological and environmental data above and below the sea surface and withstand the extreme winds and sea state present during a hurricane.
The vehicles will be deployed from the US Virgin Islands and equipped with ruggedized “hurricane wings” designed especially for operating in winds over 70 mph and waves over 10 feet.
“The new hurricane wing is a game-changer for the collection of in situ data in the most extreme weather conditions on earth,” said Richard Jenkins, Saildrone founder and CEO. “Saildrone will be able to go where no scientific vessel has ever ventured, right into the eye of the hurricane, and gather data that could make communities around the world safer from these destructive storms.”
NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center is predicting a 60% chance that the 2021 Atlantic hurricane season will be above-normal, with 13–20 named storms. About half of those are expected to become hurricanes, and 3–5 of those are expected to become major hurricanes, Category 3 or higher.
Saildrone’s science collaborators on this mission are the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory (PMEL) and Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory (AOML). The saildrones will be stationed in areas of the Atlantic Ocean that have historically seen a large number of storms. Scientists from PMEL and AOML will work together to pilot the vehicles into a series of hurricanes for testing and sampling. This mission is expected to create a foundation for PMEL and AOML to deploy a larger fleet of saildrones as part of a major field campaign for hurricane observations.
“The biggest gap in our understanding of hurricanes are the processes by which they intensify so quickly, as well as the ability to accurately predict how strong they will become. We know that the exchange of heat between the ocean and the atmosphere is one of the key physical processes providing energy to a storm, but to improve understanding, we need to collect in situ observations during a storm. Of course, that is extremely difficult given the danger of these storms. We hope that data collected with saildrones will help us to improve the model physics, and then, in turn, we will be able to improve hurricane intensity forecasts,” explained Dr. Jun Zhang, a scientist in the Hurricane Research Division at NOAA/AOML.
“PMEL has been working with Saildrone to develop the platform for specific ocean conditions since 2015. Sending a robotic vehicle into the eye of a hurricane, that’s never been done before. It’s an incredibly complex engineering challenge that could have a significant positive impact on our ability to predict extreme weather, for the benefit of communities facing these events,” said Christian Meinig, Director of Engineering at NOAA/PMEL.
Testing the hurricane wing in high-wind conditions in San Francisco Bay.
The USVs will transmit meteorological and oceanographic data from the eastern tropical Atlantic in real time including air temperature and relative humidity, barometric pressure, wind speed and direction, water temperature and salinity, sea surface temperature, and wave height and period. The data will also be sent to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO)’s Global Telecommunication System (GTS) and disseminated to all of the major forecast centers—some 20 agencies worldwide, including NOAA.
The data will also be valuable to other groups, including the National Weather Service (NWS), and the National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service (NESDIS). NWS will use the Saildrone data to improve forecasting. NESDIS will align findings resulting from the Saildrone data with that of other observing platforms, such as gliders.
Navigating an ocean of data, delivering a world of possibilities.
Saildrone is a US business that designs, manufactures, and operates a fleet of the world’s most capable, proven, and trusted uncrewed surface vehicles (USVs). Predominantly powered by wind and solar, Saildrone USVs have a minimal carbon footprint. They are equipped with advanced sensors and machine learning technology to deliver critical data and intelligence from any ocean at any time of year. Solutions include maritime domain awareness, ocean data, and ocean mapping. Saildrone operations and data collection services are encrypted and secure.