As an Atlanta-based company we certainly are no strangers to annual hurricane alerts. It comes with the territory and, over the years, it is remarkable to note how a hurricane’s path has come to be so accurately predicted. We almost always know when, and if, we’re going to be affected.
The part that still eludes forecasters, however, also happens to be the most important part: how severe will the weather be by the time it makes landfall?
This is because the most critical area of a hurricane—the place that reveals the most about a storm’s intensity and potential staying power—is at its lowest point - right where the sea meets the air. That is where the key dynamics that affect intensity, including the rate of evaporation that fuels a hurricane, take place.
It is easy to understand why meteorologists and researchers haven’t been able to gather proper data from this area. The perils of sending in manned aircraft are just too extreme. Would you want to be in that plane?
But advances in two key technologies could be changing the way hurricanes get studied, and it may eliminate the guesswork from predicting a storm’s strength. The first is the steady evolution of drone aircraft, which over the past few years have gotten smaller, more agile, more power efficient and, most importantly, cheaper.
The second involves the continuous evolution of wireless communications, sensor miniaturization and high-performance processing to create M2M devices that are robust enough to collect and transmit data from even the harshest of surroundings. The question is, including hurricanes?
All these advancements are packaged together in what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration appropriately calls its new Coyote drone. The 3-foot disposable craft is designed to float on a hurricane’s air currents in a slow descent to the sea, capturing vital data for the duration of its journey.
NOAA meteorologist Joseph Cione sums up the new methodology perfectly: “The way we're measuring things now is a snapshot. The Coyote will give us a movie.”
Armed with better data, responders will know the strength of a storm while it is still out to sea—thus gaining precious lead time to plan evacuations as necessary. Just as importantly, they can avoid the costly, burdensome, and often embarrassing, situations when it turns out that the storm whimpers out by the time it hits land.
On a wider scale, if this technology is proven able to collect precise data from a hurricane’s deepest section, where the sea and winds churn violently, think of what that means if you are a municipal sanitation manager, or a habitat scientist, or an environmental engineer; the opportunity to gather data from previously inaccessible areas might provide an early read on possibly dangerous conditions for people, property or ecosystems, and allow for remediation before those conditions have a chance to reap their effects. That will be priceless indeed, so unleash the Coyote!