The Guinness Book of World Records has recognized the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for two accomplishments: highest wind speed recorded by an uncrewed aircraft and longest endurance flight inside a tropical cyclone.
These recognitions stem from the agency’s longstanding hurricane monitoring and forecasting program. As part of that effort in September 2021, NOAA flew a custom-designed Saildrone Explorer SD 1045 vehicle into Hurricane Sam. The drone traveled at a record-setting 126.4 miles per hour into the category 4 storm and transmitted a 28-second livestream of conditions inside the hurricane.
A year later, the agency flew an Altius-600 uncrewed aircraft system, developed by Anduril, into Hurricane Ian. Deployed to provide data about the category 5 storm to NOAA forecasters and researchers, the drone flew for a record-setting 102 minutes. During the flight, the Altius-600 recorded wind speeds of 216 mph and was able to send information to NOAA’s P-3 Hurricane Hunter aircraft from as far as 135 miles away.
These impressive achievements point to the amazing technological capabilities of modern uncrewed aircraft, as well as their incredible usefulness in public safety, emergency response, and research operations. By using uncrewed systems to venture into extremely dangerous environments, NOAA personnel can acquire a wealth of accurate and critical information in a way to does not put researchers or conventional aircraft in harm’s way.
NOAA’s began using drones for its forecasting and research efforts in 2005, and the group’s program was described in detail at the recent Commercial UAV Expo in Las Vegas. There, during a keynote presentation on “People, Processes and Policies that Define and Enable Commercial Drone Programs.” Dr. Joseph J. Cione, Lead Meteorologist for Emerging Technologies at NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory, discussed the program’s early days and explained how improvements in drones and related systems, such as cameras, sensors, and data collection and analysis, have enabled NOAA to improve the way it monitors hurricanes. Cione also described how NOAA’s strong partnerships with public companies in the drone space have enabled the agency to provide support to research and forecasting efforts ranging from 2012’s devasting Hurricane Sandy through last year’s deadly Hurricane Ian.
Although NOAA is clearly a leader in the use of drones for extreme weather forecasting, they are not alone in deploying the technology for research and public safety. In the UK, for example, small weather-sensing drones have been successfully deployed by the National Centre for Atmospheric Science to take readings of atmospheric process, such as air pressure, temperature, humidity, and 3D wind turbulence observations. In Indonesia, several efforts are underway to use uncrewed systems, along with artificial intelligence, to improve weather forecasting accuracy and timeliness to support precision agriculture. These and many other efforts demonstrate the value of using drones for this important work and how the technology and its applications will continue to evolve.