In a 15-story building, in the middle of land-locked Wisconsin, a team of scientists waits for hurricane season.
That's when a multi-million dollar, unmanned aircraft will start flying from Wallops Island, Va., loaded up with a UW-Madison-engineered instrument to gather data from tropical storms off the Atlantic coast.
The September deployment is the first time UW-Madison scientists will take part in a research project to analyze storm data from a Global Hawk drone, which can loiter over a storm at 65,000 feet for up to 30 hours — two to three times longer than a typical aircraft — and cover a greater range.
"It's sort of a mystery right now in our science community as to why hurricanes intensify or de-intensify," said Chris Velden, a UW-Madison scientist working on the project. "We hope to get some information from this aircraft to be able to answer those questions."
The use of drones for hurricane research is very new. NASA is leading the five-year, $30 million experiment, which will involve 10 or so flights over a four- to five-week period each fall for the next three years, said Scott Braun, a NASA scientist and the project's principal investigator. It's only the second experiment on hurricanes NASA has conducted using the Global Hawk, he said.
Remotely-piloted aircraft for university and law enforcement purposes have come under scrutiny because of secrecy and privacy concerns; many are designed to carry surveillance equipment. The drones used in the hurricane research project were initially built for the Air Force but are now used by NASA for science excursions, Braun said.
"What's neat about it, I think, is it's taking a traditionally sort of military observing system and turning it into a peaceful application for the science of studying hurricanes," Velden said.
Advantages over satellites
Scientists say using the drones for hurricane research has advantages over satellites. While a satellite can hover for years and show a large number of storms across the globe, it might only see a particular storm once or twice a day. The drones can fly over one storm continuously.
In the NASA experiment, called Hurricane and Severe Storm Sentinel, two Global Hawks will leapfrog one another: the first looking at the inner region of the hurricane and the second looking at how the storm reacts with its environment.
"This is the future for this type of research," said Derrick Herndon, a research specialist who works on the UW-Madison instrument that will fly on the drones.
UW-Madison is providing one of seven instruments that will take scientific measurements on the flights. Velden's team is one of 11 selected to analyze the data. Velden said his team will be using the data to ensure satellite information is accurate and to answer questions about why hurricanes intensify.
In August 2004, Hurricane Charley surprised stormtrackers when it suddenly intensified, hitting south of its expected track near Fort Myers, Fla., as a Category 4 storm. It killed 10 people and caused $14 billion in damages and economic losses, the third costliest U.S. hurricane behind Katrina and Andrew, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"That's the nightmare scenario," Velden said. "We're trying to understand what dynamics were at work when that occurred. At the time there was very little information in the system. So now we're going to try to pepper it with these observations."