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20 September 2005

Unmanned Aircraft Provides Critical New Hurricane Data

Experimental mission captures new data on sea-atmosphere interface

Hurricane researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory (AOML) in Florida marked a new milestone in hurricane observation as the first unmanned aircraft touched down after a 10-hour mission into Tropical Storm Ophelia.

According to a September 16 NOAA press release, the aircraft -- a small unmanned autonomous vehicle called an aerosonde -- provided the first detailed observations of the hurricane near the sea surface, an area of high winds that often is too dangerous for NOAA and U.S. Air Force Reserve manned aircraft to observe directly.

The aerosonde hurricane project is funded by NASA and NOAA to test this new observational tool.

"If we want to improve future forecasts of hurricane intensity change, we will need to get continuous low-level observations near the air-sea interface on a regular basis,” said NOAA hurricane researcher Joe Cione.

“But manned flights near the surface of the ocean are risky,” he added. “Remote unmanned aircraft such as the aerosonde are the only way.”

According to NOAA, the environment where the atmosphere meets the sea is critically important in hurricanes because this is where the ocean's warm water energy is directly transferred to the atmosphere just above it.  This area is also important because it is where the strongest winds in a hurricane are found and is the level at which most citizens live.

Observing and ultimately better understanding this region of the storm is crucial to improving forecasts of hurricane intensity and structure.

NOAA and U.S. Air Force aircraft have been important tools in understanding hurricanes, but detailed observations of the near-surface hurricane environment have not been possible because of severe safety risks of low-level manned flight missions.

The aerosonde is a long-endurance, low-flying unmanned aircraft that flies at altitudes as low as 152 meters.

The aerosonde craft that flew into tropical storm Ophelia was outfitted with instruments used in traditional hurricane observation, including a satellite communications system that relayed information on temperature, pressure, humidity and wind speed every half second in real time.

The aerosonde also carried a downward-positioned infrared sensor that was used to estimate the underlying sea surface temperature.

All data were transmitted in near-real time to the NOAA National Hurricane Center and AOML, where the NOAA Hurricane Research Division is located.

Additional information on the aerosonde project and the AOML is available on NOAA’s Web site.

The text of the NOAA press release follows:

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National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
[Washington, D.C.]
Press release, September 16, 2005

NOAA AND PARTNERS CONDUCT FIRST SUCCESSFUL UNMANNED AIRCRAFT HURRICANE OBSERVATION BY FLYING THROUGH OPHELIA

Sept. 16, 2005 — Hurricane researchers at the NOAA Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory in Miami, Fla., marked a new milestone in hurricane observation as the first unmanned aircraft touched down after a 10-hour mission into Tropical Storm Ophelia, which lost its hurricane strength Thursday night. The aircraft, known as an Aerosonde, provided the first-ever detailed observations of the near-surface, high wind hurricane environment, an area often too dangerous for NOAA and U.S. Air Force Reserve manned aircraft to observe directly.

"It's been a long road to get to this point, but it was well worth the wait," said Joe Cione, NOAA hurricane researcher at AOML and the lead scientist on this project. "If we want to improve future forecasts of hurricane intensity change we will need to get continuous low-level observations near the air-sea interface on a regular basis, but manned flights near the surface of the ocean are risky. Remote unmanned aircraft such as the Aerosonde are the only way. Today we saw what hopefully will become 'routine' in the very near future."

NOAA's partners in this effort include the Aerosonde company, which designed and operates the aircraft, and NASA Goddard's Wallops Flight Facility, located on Virginia's Eastern Shore, which houses the U.S. base for Aerosonde North America and served as the departure and landing location for this historic flight. The Aerosonde hurricane project is funded by NASA and NOAA Research in order to test this promising new observational tool.

"The concept of the Aerosonde as a small, robust unmanned autonomous vehicle, or AUV, arose directly from our need for observations in dangerous areas such as the hurricane surface layer," said Greg Holland, president of Aerosonde North America and one of the Aerosonde originators. "I am particularly grateful to the hard work by Aerosonde staff and the support of NOAA and NASA that has now made this possible."

The Aerosond was launched at about 7:30 a.m. EDT on Friday and returned at about 5:30 p.m. "in pristine condition," according to Aerosonde North America. While the successful use of NOAA's WP-3D Orion, its Gulfstream-IV aircraft and the U.S. Air Force Reserve's WC-130H aircraft have been important tools in the arsenal to understand tropical cyclones, detailed observations of the near-surface hurricane environment have been elusive because of the severe safety risks associated with low level manned flight missions. The main objective of the Aerosonde project addresses this significant observational shortcoming by using the unique long endurance and low-flying attributes of the unmanned Aerosonde observing platform, flying at altitudes as low as 500 feet. Tropical Storm Ophelia provided the perfect test case for using Aerosondes as it was a minimal hurricane within flight range of the Wallops Flight Facility.

The Aerosonde platform that flew into Ophelia was specially outfitted with sophisticated instruments used in traditional hurricane observation, including instruments such as mounted Global Position System (GPS) dropwindsondes and a satellite communications system that relayed information on temperature, pressure, humidity and wind speed every half second in real-time. The Aerosonde also carried a downward positioned infrared sensor that was used to estimate the underlying sea surface temperature. All available data were transmitted in near-real time to the NOAA National Hurricane Center and AOML, where the NOAA Hurricane Research Division is located.

The environment where the atmosphere meets the sea is critically important in hurricanes as it is where the ocean's warm water energy is directly transferred to the atmosphere just above it. The hurricane/ocean interface also is important because it is where the strongest winds in a hurricane are found and is the level at which most citizens live. Observing and ultimately better understanding this region of the storm is crucial to improve forecasts of hurricane intensity and structure. Enhancing this predictive capability would not only save the U.S. economy billions of dollars, but more important, it could save many lives.

Accomplishments from this first flight include detailed documentation of an unsampled region of the hurricane while simultaneously providing the NOAA National Hurricane Center with real-time near surface wind and thermodynamic data from within Tropical Storm Ophelia. In addition, detailed comparisons between in-situ and satellite-derived observations also will be possible. It is also envisioned that this unique data could ultimately be used to help initialize and verify both operational and research-oriented numerical simulations.

NOAA, an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce, is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through the prediction and research of weather and climate-related events and providing environmental stewardship of the nation's coastal and marine resources.

Relevant Web Sites

NOAA Aerosonde Project Update http://www.aoml.noaa.gov/hrd/project2005/aerosonde_update.html

NOAA Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory http://www.aoml.noaa.gov/

NOAA Hurricane Research Division http://www.aoml.noaa.gov/hrd/

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