‘Saildrone’ footage offers rare peek inside a Category 4 hurricane
By Vimal Patel
The video looks like it could be b-roll from the 2000 film “The Perfect Storm.”
The camera is tossed around by winds topping 120 mph and waves towering to 50 feet, all amid dense clouds.
But this isn’t Hollywood. The 28-second clip, shot by an unmanned vessel Thursday, was a first-of-its-kind glimpse from inside a major hurricane, scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said.
The 23-foot vessel pierced the eyewall of Hurricane Sam as it barreled through the Atlantic Ocean. Sam, which peaked as a Category 4 storm, was downgraded to a Category 2 storm Sunday but was still packing winds of up to 100 mph.
“This is a truly groundbreaking accomplishment because we’ve shown for the first time that it’s possible to send an uncrewed, remote-controlled vehicle on the surface of the ocean directly into a major hurricane — one of the harshest environments on Earth — and we showed that we can retrieve this extremely valuable data from within the hurricane immediately,” Greg Foltz, a NOAA scientist who was involved with the effort, said in an interview Saturday. “That’s never been done.”
Foltz said the knowledge gleaned was critical to improving storm forecasting and reducing the loss of life in coastal communities at a time when climate change is making hurricanes stronger.
The drones, he said, measure key processes that drive hurricane intensification, which is defined as maximum sustained winds strengthening by 30 knots or more within a day. This includes quantifying the exchange of energy between the ocean and the hurricane and the ocean’s frictional effect on the storm, he said.
“This really opens up a whole new realm of possibilities for observing a hurricane,” he said.
Rapid intensification of hurricanes poses a serious threat to coastal communities, Foltz said.
For example, Hurricane Michael was forecast to arrive in October 2018 as a tropical storm but instead furiously amped up and smashed into the Florida Panhandle with winds topping 155 mph.
The phenomenon “doesn’t happen very often but can be dangerous and is very poorly understood,” he said.
The vehicle that made it into Sam is one of five “Saildrones” that have been gathering data in the Atlantic during hurricane season to better understand the storms.
The hurricane program is the product of a partnership between NOAA and Saildrones Inc., a company based in Alameda, California, that manufactures and operates the vehicles. The company got its start with $2.5 million in grants from former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and his wife, Wendy.
The company’s autonomous vehicles have been deployed for ocean mapping, maritime security and other uses from the Arctic to the Antarctic. But getting inside a hurricane was the “last frontier” of the drones’ survivability, Saildrones CEO Richard Jenkins said.
“For our first boat to get through a Category 4 hurricane without any damage is phenomenal from an engineering perspective,” said Jenkins, a sailor himself. “These are conditions that would sink almost any ship.”
He described a Saildrone as unsinkable and submersible. It “could be held under water for a long time and pop back up,” he said. The Saildrone wing technology allows a mission to last up to 12 months without the need to return to land for maintenance or refueling, the company said.
NOAA has a long-term commitment to advancing drone technology and envisions a fleet of Saildrones operating in the Atlantic during hurricane season each year, Foltz said. He has short-term plans as well.
“We still have about a month to go in the peak of the hurricane season,” he said. “We hope to get another Saildrone into a hurricane and get more valuable measurements this year.”