While the American Civil Liberties Union and the Obama Administration duked it out in court last week over the U.S. military’s use of lethal drone strikes in the war on terror, NASA launched its own drone mission in the ongoing battle to understand and predict deadly storms.
An unmanned Global Hawk plane (pictured above) left NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, in Virgina, on September 19. The drone is set to target the eye of Hurricane Nadine, which has been brewing over the Azores and the North Atlantic Ocean for about a week.
This will be the Global Hawk’s third trip into the storm this year—the first of a three-year, 30-million-dollar experiment to use high-altitude, long-distance drones that can “spy,” or collect data, on the evolution of tropical storm intensity.
Unlike more commonly used manned hurricane hunter planes, the Global Hawks, with a wingspan of 116 feet (35 meters) and a jet engine, can stay in the air for up to 30 hours and travel up to 11,000 miles (17,700 kilometers).
“We’re getting to areas that you just can’t get to with a manned aircraft,” said Ramesh Kakar, who leads weather research for NASA’s Earth science projects.
And the endurance of the drones means the difference between conducting reconnaissance and surveillance, explained Scott Braun, director of NASA’s new Global Hawk mission. “If you drove by a drug dealer’s house, you wouldn’t catch him; but if you stood there all day, you might.”
The Global Hawk does both recon and longer-term intelligence gathering for the U.S. military.
NASA scientists, in collaboration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and drone manufacturer Northrop Grumman, hope their efforts to document the entire lifecycle of tropical storms will help refine hurricane prediction and reduce the costs associated with both storm damage and evacuation.
“If we can improve forecasts, we can save money and lives,” Braun said.
(Read more about extreme weather in National Geographic magazine.)