NOAA uses UAS to gather information for hurricane forecasting

By Ann Bailey | January 14, 2016

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is researching the use of a UAS to gather information for hurricane forecasters.

The agency is investing in UAS and other technologies to improve weather observations designed to improve the accuracy of hurricane forecasts, said Joe Cione, hurricane researcher at a NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory. NOAA began operating the Coyote, originally developed for Navy surveillance, for hurricane research in 2009.

A team from NOAA and Raytheon demonstrated advancements of the Coyote UAS while completing a mid-flight launch from the NOAA P-3 Hurricane Hunter aircraft in early January. The Hurricane Hunter released the Coyote over the Avan Park (Florida) Air Force Range to measure the transmission range of upgraded technologies.

During the demonstration, Coyote set a time record for flight control and data transmission to the P3, of 68 minutes, eclipsing the old record by eight minutes, said Cione, Coyote program chief scientist. The Coyote provided NOAA hurricane forecasters with information on atmospheric pressure, wind speed and direction and sea surface temperature, he said. Monitoring the sea temperature is important because it gives forecasters an idea of the potential energy of the hurricane, Cione said, adding that warm air is conducive to pulling energy out of the ocean.

The Coyote initially was tested in a major hurricane during the 2014 Atlantic season when NOAA flew multiple missions into Hurricane Edward at controlled levels as low as 400 feet. After the successful 2014 flights, scientists and engineers worked to upgrade the Coyote technology.

One of the keys to making the aircraft more useful was to fly it farther from the P3-lanch aircraft while providing continuous data from its sensors, NOAA said. NOAA Aircraft and Operations Center and Raytheon engineers developed and installed a new antenna and radio so the operators could communicate with the Coyote as it flew away from the Hurricane Hunter during the flight.

The successful Coyote demonstration flight in early January gives NOAA more confidence that forecasters can be able to use UAS to collect critical continuous observations in the lower part of the hurricane, a level that is too dangerous to fly a manned aircraft, Cione said.

The Coyote offers NOAA a new tool, he said. Research and development continues, he said. For example, researchers are working to improve the Coyote’s battery life. Extending the battery life by a few hours could be a “game changer,” Cione said.

The Coyote’s ability to gather information from the hurricane will help improve forecasting which, in turn, should help protect lives and property, he said.