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This tiny, high-tech drone can fly inside hurricanes and measure their intensity

"[It does] what we hoped it would do — keep humans out of harm's way."

Photo Credit: NOAA/AOC

As hurricanes have become more intense, scientists have gotten really good at tracking and predicting their paths. But predicting a storm's intensity is another story altogether. 

To tackle that issue, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is turning to drones, namely, a 27-pound robot named "Altius," which can fly straight into the eye of a hurricane.

Altius is a specialized, uncrewed aerial drone controlled by an operator who can be up to 100 miles away. The small aircraft has an eight-foot wingspan and boasts a capable range of 275 miles, plus a top speed of 100 miles per hour, which it uses to zip in and out of intensifying hurricanes. 

Compact and mighty though it may be, Altius doesn't act alone. The drone launches from a pair of crewed Hurricane Hunter aircrafts named "Kermit" and "Miss Piggy."

The technology was designed by NOAA as a way to pull off reconnaissance flights in environments that are far too dangerous for humans — like the insides of hurricanes that have reached Category 4 and above

In recent missions, like a successful two-hour deployment studying Hurricane Ian in September, the drone has collected data from as low as 200 feet above the ocean. 

"If [Altius] survives this, it will survive anything," Dr. Joe Cione, the lead meteorologist for new technology at NOAA, recalled in a press release following the drone's release. "On its first try, Altius did what we hoped it would do; keep humans out of harm's way."

The overheating of our planet due to harmful pollution is causing wetter, more intense hurricanes that get stronger much faster than we're used to. And as the atmosphere changes, storms are moving more slowly, meaning they can hover over communities for longer, often making the storms harder to predict.

However, better technology, like Altius, will give researchers the data they need to forecast and better prepare people for these devastating storms.

Last year, NOAA contractor Saildrone captured the first-ever footage of the extreme weather conditions inside a Category 4 hurricane in the Atlantic Ocean with its 23-foot unmanned Saildrone Explorer, equipped with a specially designed "hurricane" wing. At the time the video was shot, the company says its drone was experiencing wind gusts of over 120 mph and 50-foot waves.

One of Saildrone's uncrewed surface vehicles also captured similarly harrowing footage from inside the eye of Hurricane Fiona in September 2022.

Unlike Altius, which is deployed from an aircraft, a Saildrone craft can literally sail through the water into a storm in order to collect data.

Beyond storm tracking and observing, Saildrone says it aims to support a "healthy ocean, and a safe, sustainable planet."

"Our measurements and observations, from above and below the ocean surface, provide intelligence and insight for subjects ranging from maritime security to mapping, to Earth system processes such as weather forecasting, carbon cycling, global fishing, and climate change. All of which have a tremendous impact on humanity," the company's website explains.

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