The U.S. government is experimenting with a new weapon in its quest for more accurate hurricane tracking and predictions: unmanned airplanes.
Like the U.S. military, which uses unmanned Predator drone aircraft to track terror suspects and even attack targets, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is sending remote control planes where it's too dangerous for even the bravest pilots to fly -- into the guts of some of nature's most powerful storms.
Their Mark 3 model planes have proved rugged in early test flights, and NOAA has high hopes riding on them.
"This is one of the pioneering new technologies to improve hurricane predictions, " said Robert Atlas, director of NOAA's Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Lab on Virginia Key.
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In a test flight last summer, one of the Mark 3 planes flew a 17-hour one-way mission into the heart of Hurricane Noel, going lower and longer inside a storm than any airplane ever had, said NOAA research scientist Joseph Cione.
Researchers decided to sacrifice the small craft for the sake of science, monitoring its readings until it disappeared somewhere over the stormy Atlantic.
One of the robot aircraft, built by Australia-based manufacturer Aerosonde, was set up in NOAA's lobby Monday. Cione and Atlas explained the benefits of the airplane to Miami U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who was on an educational tour.
With a nine-foot wingspan and weighing in at under 30 pounds, the mostly carbon-fiber airplane can get 700 miles per gallon fuel efficiency from unleaded gasoline. NOAA now leases the airplanes, which cost less than $100,000 each, Cione said.
NOAA and NASA, which is jointly running the project, have flown into two storms, including an inaugural flight into Tropical Storm Ofelia in 2005. NOAA didn't use the planes in 2006 because of funding difficulties, but researchers plan to fly one out of Barbados this summer. Cione wants to test it in winds of up to 150 miles an hour. The remote pilot has to belly-flop the plane to land it, as it lacks landing gear.
Manned flights that plunge into hurricanes usually stay above 10,000 feet, as conditions become increasingly dangerous for pilots as altitude decreases. The Aerosonde plane has flown as low as 300 feet, where violent storm conditions are seldom studied.
NOAA is researching the changes in intensity within hurricanes, as is the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.
"The energy that feeds the storms comes out of the ocean, and we don't understand that energy transfer very well, " Cione said. "Observations near the surface are key to that."
Ros-Lehtinen's tour of NOAA was part of a visit that also included a stop at the Rosenstiel School. In a conversation with Atlas, Ros-Lehtinen prodded him on the need to bridge the gap between the advanced hurricane research being done at Rosenstiel, and what's used in field operations at NOAA.
Ros-Lehtinen said increasing funding for the lab was the "highest priority" for South Florida because of the important hurricane research.
"These unmanned planes can save hundreds of lives by allowing researchers to better estimate the tracking and intensity of the hurricanes, " she said.