Story at a glance

  • Crewless sailboats are being sent by meteorologists inside hurricanes, allowing experts to safely study these intense storms.
  • Saildrones can stay at sea indefinitely and advanced models can withstand wind speeds of 140mph thanks to a “hurricane wing.”
  • Information gathered by Saildrones can help scientists improve storm forecasting and better prepare coastal communities for storms.

Meteorologists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are sending crewless sailboats inside hurricanes to study the interior of one of nature’s most powerful storms.

The Saildrones used by NOAA are robotic vessels about 23 feet long that can remain at sea indefinitely because they are powered by a combination of wind and solar energy. Some advanced models, like the Saildrone Explorer SD 1045, can withstand winds up to 140 mph and sail through towering waves.

The SD 1045 in September traversed through Hurricane Sam, a Category 4 storm that barreled across the Atlantic for more than three weeks. The drone, equipped with a “hurricane wing” allowing it to operate through extreme wind conditions, battled wind speeds of more than 120 mph and 50-foot waves.

The real-time data collected by the SD 1045 is critical, according to NOAA, and will give the agency new insight into just how large and destructive hurricanes can be. It’ll also improve storm forecasting and help coastal communities better prepare for storms, ultimately reducing loss of human life.


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But perhaps the most important data will be on rapid intensification, or an increase in the maximum sustained winds of a tropical cyclone of roughly 35mph in 24 hours, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center, a division of NOAA.

Intensification poses a significant threat to coastal communities in particular because it gives so little warning.

“Using data collected by Saildrones, we expect to improve forecast models that predict rapid intensification of hurricanes,” Greg Foltz, a NOAA scientist, said in a statement. “Rapid intensification, when hurricane winds strengthen in a matter of hours, is a serious threat to coastal communities. New data from Saildrones and other uncrewed systems that NOAA is using will help us better predict the forces that drive hurricanes and be able to warn communities earlier.”

The SD 1045 is one of five Saildrones that sailed through the Atlantic Ocean during hurricane season, between June and November. Earlier Saildrone models had previously been launched in the Arctic and Southern oceans.


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Published on Dec 16, 2021